It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.
Macbeth. Act III, scene iv, line 128
And David sware moreover, and said, Thy father certainly knoweth that I have found grace in thine eyes; and he saith, Let not Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved: but as truly as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death.
Then said Jonathan unto David, Whatsoever thy soul desireth, I will even do it for thee.
The Bible. 1 Samuel 20: 3 - 4. King James Version.
Mai remembers the first time she truly understood what love was.
Mai remembers the first time she truly understood what love was, and Zuko has nothing to do with it.
It is their final semester at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. Mai's birthday is early in the year; she is already thirteen by the time graduation draws close. Azula and Ty Lee are still only twelve. In less than a year Ty Lee will run away to the circus. In two, Azula will come to fetch them on her quest to hunt down the Avatar. Sometime between the two events, Mai's father will be appointed governor of Omashu and her family will relocate from the capitol of the Fire Nation.
But none of this has happened yet. They are part of the senior class, the elite strata of girls poised at the very brink of graduation - and freedom. They are well-educated in both the hard sciences and the soft: versed in classic literature and philosophy and able to speak to either; capable of explaining the world through engineering and arithmetic. Even so, these seniors have little to offer but condescension to the younger students and apathy toward their few remaining lessons and eagerness for the grass that is far, far greener on the outside of the Academy's pristine fence than it is within.
However, as the senior class, there is still one last trial they must go through.
The final exam for the entirety of the senior class is a closely-guarded secret. The women who had passed through before them maintain a fierce silence - it is rumored that this was because the exam changed every year to prevent word from spreading. So like anything that is enigmatic by nature, theories and rumors and legends begin to grow - from the day they first step foot within the Academy, the whispers compound exponentially until they are practically their own classroom subject by the time the exam is administered.
Mai doesn't care.
The whole thing is ridiculous and utterly boring, and besides, the single known fact about the exam is this: that it is designed to be intentionally easy, almost insultingly simple - just one last haze they must pass through before graduation. It is impossible to fail.
Until it isn't.
Ten girls at a time. They are pulled out of class at random, seemingly to stump those who might attempt to gossip or cheat - though Mai wonders, with what little interest she can summon about the matter, how one can cheat at a test that is impossible to fail - and sent out into the courtyard that stands in the center of the Academy.
She is not surprised to see that Azula and Ty Lee are in her group. Though the system is solid and the headmistress stern, Azulon and his get were not known for conforming to any rules that weren't their own. The reach of the royal family extends far beyond palace walls.
Mai automatically clusters together with the Princess and the acrobat; it is second nature by now and she does not even consider standing elsewhere. Together, all three girls turn expectant, impatient faces toward their instructor as she begins to explain what their exam is.
A fact: Dragons were the original firebenders, and taught their craft to the first human firebenders. As the Fire Nation grew, the art of firebending was passed onto newer generations - how it is passed on cannot be decided on with certainty, but many suspect the ability lies within the blood.
A conjecture: It is implausible - though not impossible - for a citizen of the Fire Nation to never have a firebender somewhere in their ancestral line: immigration, emigration, luck, chance. Highly, highly, highly implausible. But not impossible.
A theory, to be explained into law: However, if you are a true noble, it is impossible to not have a firebender in your ancestral line.
The nobility is split into two factions: the blood nobility and the new nobility.
The blood nobility are the families that have kept the Fire Lord's court and lived within the capital city for generations. As stated in the description - 'blood nobility' - they do not define a noble by title, but by bloodline. They are well-established and deeply entrenched in the politics and plots of the court, and guard their noble status jealously.
The new nobility - indeed, often called the 'ig-nobility' in a sneering tone by a blood noble - were those who worked or bribed or had otherwise wormed their way into the good graces of the Fire Lord and thus had been awarded a title and all the privileges that came with it. What they did not receive was the loyalty and support of those whose families had been nobles for decades; indeed, the blood nobility saw these persons as trespassers whose presence was not even tolerable, let alone desired.
If one was a member of the blood nobility, they had certain aspects in common. It was equivalent to a logic equation: All [A] belongs to [B]. [B] is a subset of [C]. Not all [C] have [A]. In other words, take gold eyes - if you had gold eyes, you were a member of the blood nobility. However, not all nobility had gold eyes, since the blood nobles were just one subset of the entire noble population.
It was the same with firebending. If one was a member of the blood nobility, one had a firebender somewhere in their ancestry. And even if one was a non-firebender, there were certain things that were passed down the line: titles. Inheritance. Eyes the color of summer wheat.
And, interestingly enough, blood that would make fire leap and hiss and nip at its source, cavorting around like an ostrich-horse in heat.
No, a blood noble that was not a firebender could not control fire. Non-benders could still be burned - as could benders, as Zuko had learned a few unfortunate years since then - and non-benders could still die by the flame. But as quick as it was to betray them, fire remembered. It remembered those that had come before; those who could generate it with nothing but desire and a gesture, and it responded to those dormant memories in a quick but noticeable homage.
A non-bending blood noble could not partake in an Agni Kai. A non-bending blood noble could not walk through the Gates of Azulon. A non-bending blood noble could not create fire, control fire, or extinguish fire with a thought and a flick of their hand from twenty feet away.
But a non-bending blood noble could feed a fire with nothing but a few drops of their blood and have it roar like a dying dragon's last defiant breath.
A fact: The Royal Fire Academy for Girls only accepts the children of nobility that are five generations pure.
So, if you were a student at the Academy, this test was simple. Easy. Too easy. Insultingly easy. For you had at least five generations of noble blood in your veins - and as such, you were a blood noble - and all this test consisted of was sacrificing three drops of blood and watching the fire dance for you and going on to graduation next week. Ridiculously easy, and impossible to fail.
Unless you could.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mai watches Ty Lee as the instructor speaks. The girl's face is held still in intense concentration - and then quicker than she can take a breath, Mai sees the following: growing concern. Trepidation. Dawning horror.
Neither Mai nor Azula has ever questioned - or even thought about - Ty Lee's grey eyes. They were always wide and filled with some sort of positive emotion, which frankly irritated Mai to the point that it made her physically exhausted to look at them for an extended period of time.
Besides, Ty Lee had been Azula's friend for ages. She had gotten into the Academy. They are too young to know anything about forged birth-papers, or backroom deals, or how relieved Ty Lee's mother must have been when her youngest daughter came screaming into the world looking like the rest of her sisters, and how relieved her mother's lower-class lover must have been to learn that he would not be put on trial and executed for seducing a lady of the nobility and fathering her daughter - who, undoubtedly, would have been exposed and left to die as was the only recourse for a bastard child.
Ty Lee's storm-grey baby eyes never morphed into the cat-yellow of her siblings' gazes. But who would dare level an accusation? Nothing could be proven. No one had ever found that last loving letter from a middle-class merchant to his noble lover, asking her to care for their daughter as she had her own...
... no one but Ty Lee, that is.
The acrobat is young, but not so young that she cannot feel the weight of the sword balanced just behind her neck - a sword that, with a careless word or inopportune question, would come cleaving downward faster than Azula's temper could flare. She may be one of the Princess' dearest friends, but the Fire Nation is not so starved for soldiers that the court would be willing to overlook protocol; the kindest thing she can wish for is banishment: a preadolescent girl exiled to the unsympathetic, unforgiving lands beyond. War is not the best time for a young woman to wander without fortune or friend, doubly so because her nation is the aggressor... but Ty Lee dares not entertain the other sentences Lord Ozai could order carried out - for both herself and her family.
Firebending is a foreign art to her, but Ty Lee can create fire with help from a flint and some tinder - and ensure that she is the last living soul to lay eyes on that letter.
And after the fire is lit, Ty Lee stares into the fury-orange of the fire and pretends, pretends so hard that for a moment she almost believes in her lie, that her gaze is the same molten gold color of the flames that are consuming the last tangible link to her past.
But in the end, all she has is grey: the grey of her aura, sullen and despondent. The grey of the ash and soot that stand as witness to her desperation.
The grey of her ever-cursed eyes.
The exam begins.
There is a natural order to things in the Academy just as there is in the wild, and it goes like this: Azula is always first. Mai, with her family one of the most powerful and prestigious in the Fire Nation, goes next. Ty Lee goes third - her father is a nobleman of middling status and no great conviction but the mere fact that she is favored by the Princess grants her precedence. This is the way it has been since the first hour of their first day at school and this time is no exception.
At least, this time would have been no exception - but Ty Lee slinks to the back of the line, prisoner to something far more powerful than the startled look in Mai's eyes and the pointed intensity in Azula's.
Their teacher gestures to a small pile of kindling on the ground and sets it ablaze. Three drops of blood, come the instructions. Then you may proceed to the other side of the courtyard and sit quietly until your classmates are finished.
A small, suspicious furrow appears in the Princess' brow as she continues to regard Ty Lee, her wolfs-gold eyes boring into the acrobat's hair - for the girl that never thought once about breaking all the rules of court etiquette and throwing her arms around Azula in a wild embrace could not even raise her eyes to meet the Princess.
Mai has heard of birds that consume stones to help with their digestion. There are boulders in her belly now, sitting motionless as a feeling of cold unease steals over her.
Azula's name is called. They are waiting for her to proceed.
"Don't worry, Ty Lee." comes the reassurance from the Princess - but all three know she speaks false. First, Azula never offers encouragement. Second, if Azula ever does speak words of comfort, they are the thinnest of ice over the deep waters of her machinations. The inflection of her voice makes it perfectly clear - this is nothing less than a test. "You can't *possibly* fail this."
She's right. It's easy. Too easy. Insultingly easy. Impossible to fail.
Unless you are the girl with the fog-grey squirming before that flame, and when you finally raise your head to meet the gazes of your two best friends in the world, they see something that they have never witnessed from you before this moment:
Azula does not go first, Mai does not go second, Ty Lee does not go third.
All three girls hang back as their wondering classmates proceed before them. The Princess knows - she knew as soon as Ty Lee looked her in the face and made clear her despair. Mai knows, and she feels like vomiting - pleas, excuses, threats, her breakfast.
After all, it is not only Azula's right - but her responsibility - to denounce Ty Lee as a fraud and a liar. Lies are coin of the realm in the world of the nobles, but to deceive the crown is an entirely different - and often fatal - matter.
The acrobat's knees are visibly trembling; Mai knows it is nothing but the effort to keep the façade of normalcy that keeps Ty Lee from falling to the ground and humbling herself before the Princess, begging Azula for mercy with everything but words. Had Mai been present when Zuko genuflected before his father, desperate tears streaming down his cheeks, she could not have picked out the more pathetic sight between the two - the boy forced to his knees or the girl unable to sink to hers.
No response but that same measured look from Azula. Mai's heart might as well be carved out of granite, for all that it beats. She is about to watch one of her best friends be dragged off for being a bastard; though Mai is not naïve, life outside the capital city's walls has not touched her yet. She knows little of death and less of loss and this is not the way she expected those difficult lessons to present themselves.
Three girls are sitting across the courtyard, nursing their wounded hands.
"A knife, Mai."
Mai's pupils flare, and black overwhelms the royal gold that marks her a blood noble. No. Not even Azula - cruel, spiteful, terrible Azula - would carry out that sentence, and not in the middle of the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. The Princess could dishonor Ty Lee in a number of ways - have her dragged through the streets to the taunts of a hostile crowd. Have her family's fortune and position cast away like a diseased animal, culled from the herd. Have the acrobat ejected from her birth country without ceremony - or with all the ceremony her wicked heart should desire.
But Azula cannot, cannot put a blade to Ty Lee and wash away the sins of the mother with the blood of the daughter.
"A knife, Mai."
Mai opens her mouth to protest, but the Princess will have none of it. She knows her friends well enough and quicker than Mai can draw breath, Azula has shoved one of her hands up Mai's sleeves and pulled a blade free from where it rests against her forearm. No - but she cannot openly fight back here, not without drawing more attention to a scene that is already wobbling on the precipice of full-blown notice. She makes a desperate grab at the Princess' arm but Azula flings her off, an ugly curl of the Princess' lip appearing momentarily before she locks her eyes on Ty Lee, the gold of her irises churning like lava and ten times as heated.
Mai betrays Azula exactly one time, and that time is not due for some years yet. But in truth, her betrayals number a time and a half - for another blade has appeared between her fingers, and the command to throw has just started to form in her brain when Ty Lee stops them both: the acrobat straightens up and lifts her chin, exposing her neck to Azula. Her throat bobs once, twice, and then she whispers through unshed tears:
"If it must be done, I'm glad it's you."
Mai stares. Azula blinks. Ty Lee tries to smile.
Six girls are sitting across the courtyard. There is only one left until all eyes are on them. An earthbender finds a grip on Mai's stone-weighted stomach and drags it downward into the dirt. Ty Lee's words are as good as any executioner's writ. To think, her own blood a death warrant - signed, sealed, delivered. It is done and Mai must witness her friend slaughtered like a spring lamb.
"Idiot," Azula hisses. There is a swift downward stroke and the knife falls to the ground, forgotten before it lands.
Mai stares, again. It is not the acrobat's blood that has been shed, but instead—
Azula grabs Ty Lee's right hand with her left; she spreads the acrobat's fingers open, exposing her palm. Azula's right hand is elevated above Ty Lee's, her fingers curled into a fist - the Princess squeezes as if forcing the pulp from a fruit; a vein on her arm throbs—
The Princess' name is called.
Azula spins on her heel and marches up to the fire. She is pale, paler than usual. Mai can see the sweat beading on Azula's temples, the Princess' hands quivering as she stares into the heart of the flame. The tendons on the backs of her hands are gnarled cords, standing out in perfect contrast to her pale skin, and her fingertips are trembling as if struck with uncontrollable fever.
The Princess ignores the knife that is offered to her and raises her right hand over the flame. Her fist opens and a torrent of blood washes down; the line of Sozin, Azulon and Ozai splashes into the fire—
— and a pillar at least ten feet high shoots into the air, screaming like a phoenix with its wings torn off. The length of the beast is a brilliant cerulean and even though Azula's back is to them, Mai would bet all the ill-gotten gains of the Fire Nation that Azula is smirking.
And smirk she will, but not yet.
Azula remains impassive as Mai, utterly bewildered at what has just transpired, steps up to the fire. She pointedly refuses the offer of the communal knife, instead presenting one of the twenty hidden on her person and using that one. Mai does not need to make a display of things - she leaves that sort of thing to Azula - and gives the required three drops of blood; nothing more, nothing less. The fire leaps once more, though certainly not ten feet into the air - it jumps up to kiss at her outstretched palm, nibbling at the open wound before settling back down into its former subdued state.
The smirk that Mai predicted would grace Azula's face appears when Ty Lee nervously approaches, the last girl remaining. Without looking at anyone - the instructor, Azula, Mai, the seven other girls holding the weight of a thousand molecules of air captive within their lungs - she lifts her right hand and makes a tiny incision, careful to cup it and keep it close to her body to avoid prying eyes.
Mai already knows that Ty Lee's palm is stained scarlet with borrowed blood.
Ty Lee places her hand over the fire, palm-down, and holds her breath. Blood: one, two, three - and the fire twists around Ty Lee's wrist like a manacle, or perhaps like the Princess' own fingers curling around that delicate circumference.
The edges of the flame are blue.
Undeniable. Eleven pairs of eyes have seen it - ten students and one instructor to verify what occurred - and Ty Lee all but throws herself across that great divide, that space between where she stood to where everyone else sat. When the acrobat lowers herself into a sitting position, Mai idly wonders if Ty Lee will die of a heart attack right then and there and thinks it would be a terrible waste given that she has already passed the exam.
Azula's spine finally folds, one hand limp and languid on the ground, the other crushed to her chest. When they are dismissed and the Princess rises to her feet, the sweat on the backs of her knees and around her collar is so great that it has stained her clothes two different hues. There is a giant, damning blood-stain on her blouse where she'd pressed her wounded hand - it rings her heart like a corona. The instructor is looking at the Princess in a fashion that Mai has seen before - the flat unblinking gaze of a serpent right before its fangs meet flesh.
The teacher did not witness any wrongdoing. She cannot publically denounce Ty Lee - but she can turn her wrath on a far greater prize. The fact that Azula's hand is nearly severed in two is evidence enough to convict.
The Princess does not return with them to the classroom. A mere hour later Mai spots Fire Lord Ozai's long, sharp shadow disappear down the corridor that leads to his daughter's room.
Mai is not a very religious person. That evening, she lights a candle in the small shrine to Agni that lies on school grounds. She prostrates herself before the golden image and re-opens the fresh scar on her palm, offering up another gift of her blood to the eternal and undying lord of the flame.
And then Mai prays, with a ferocity she did not know existed within her, that Azula survives the night.
The Princess does indeed survive the night.
The following day, Mai only catches a glimpse of Azula to verify that she is alive, and that is because she follows another shadow down the hall - Ty Lee's.
The sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued noble rounds a corner and pauses. If she never believed in the living dead before this moment, she does now - Azula is all dusk and hollows; acute angles and emptiness fill the places where fire and life used to thrive. Looking into the Princess' sunken eyes is like peering down an unlit corridor of the Royal Palace at night - no warmth to evoke feelings of safety, no light to guide, nothing but growing trepidation and a distinct feeling that you Did Not Belong Here.
There stands in the Princess' place a husk, an echo. But it is a shell that has not given up Ty Lee's secret, not even to Ozai, her lord father and the one being on the planet Azula actually fears - for the acrobat still breathes.
Mai has all of two seconds to take in the apparition that Azula has become before the noise Ty Lee emits shakes both Mai's concentration and her heart. It is some strangled combination of whimper and sob; a dry, desperate sound. Ty Lee is ever the optimist but Mai wonders how the acrobat can possibly fix this - her blood cannot stir a simple lick of flame, much less re-ignite the inferno typically found in Azula's molten-gold eyes—
— but the startled flash in the Princess' gaze when Ty Lee crushes her mouth to Azula's comes close.
Mai decides that this is more than an appropriate time to excuse herself.
Mai remembers the first time she truly understood what love was.
It is when she is thirteen and seated in the courtyard of the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, and she sees Ty Lee lose hope for the first and only time in her life - when she sees Azula all but amputate her hand to lend Ty Lee her blood - when she sees Azula spit on the protocol of the crown to ensure that Ty Lee, and her lie, survived the day.
It is when she is about to disappear back behind the corner, letting her friends have their privacy, when she looks past the kiss, past the hint of a living spark in the Princess' eyes, past Ty Lee's forehead pressed to Azula's and her hands lingering at the Princess' side for the briefest of moments before they are on Azula's neck, her face, her hair.
It is when she sees that over the bandage holding Azula's mauled hand together, Ty Lee has wrapped one of her pink hair ribbons.
A fact: Ty Lee returns to the Fire Nation not a month after she'd left for Kyoshi Island. Mai is there to greet her; frankly, she'd expected the acrobat back sooner.
A fact: Azula was never one to be anything less than perfect. Thus, it should come as little surprise that the Princess loves violently, utterly, completely - flawlessly.
She could save Ty Lee with her heart's blood and in doing so offered up her heart as well. She expresses it the only way that she knows how - not with words, but with actions: the ravine carved into her hand; the quick lick of flame around Ty Lee's wrist - they are all the I love you the twelve-year old Princess can manage.
A fact: In the Fire Nation, it is a life for a life. Azula had given Ty Lee's back to her, remaining quiet when it had been her duty to send the acrobat to the butcher's block. A life for a lie - one of bloodline and birthright and nobility. But that lie is what keeps Ty Lee blinking and breathing, it is why her heart continues to beat to this very day.
Mai is thirteen when she truly understands what love is, and sixteen when she can finally put it into words. She wants to laugh because, like all basic truths, it is as simple as the ribbon that bound Azula's flesh together and as difficult as taming the howling wilderness that the Princess is now:
Ty Lee returns not out of obligation or duty or a severe case of martyr syndrome. It is because, all those years ago, an agreement was reached and sealed with a kiss—
A life for a life. A limb for a limb. An eye for an eye.
A heart for a heart.