Trial by Fire
Chapter 1: Catalyst
The Fire Nation's palace gardens were in the full, fresh bloom of spring; reds, oranges and yellows blazed away in flower beds that were no longer orderly, while fruit trees dripped with pink and white blossoms, some of them blowing away in the strong breeze, coating the overlong green grass and drifting across wrought iron benches.
Azula, Princess of the Fire nation, only ten years old but already a commanding presence, a presence the palace servants were terrified of, held court over her only two friends.
"Ty Lee, I didn't say that you could stop."
The little girl with enormous grey eyes and long brown hair pulled expertly into a braid, stared apologetically at the princess. "I'm sorry, Azula, but I'm tired. I've done at least a hundred cartwheels already."
Also ten years old, Ty Lee was a gifted acrobat with an incredibly flexible body. She loved tumbling and doing flips but Azula drained the fun out of it. The princess drained the fun out of everything, preferring to hurt people, play malicious tricks or simply dominate like she was doing now. Ty Lee was tired of it. She was a happy child, naturally cheerful, who always looked for the best in people. She tried with Azula, she really tried, but often could find nothing but cold, heartless manipulation. Ty Lee wished that things were different. She wished that Azula were kinder and sweeter and easier on her.
For three long years, she had been coming to the palace to 'play' with Azula and their other friend from school, Mai. When the princess wanted you, it was imperative that you show up. An angry Azula was a frightening sight. Besides that, both Ty Lee's and Mai's parents insisted that their daughters spend time at the palace whenever possible. A connection with royalty was highly sought after, and could bring about many opportunities.
"I don't care if you're tired, just do it." Crossing her arms across her chest, Azula stared down the meeker girl, daring her to speak up again. The princess's amber eyes narrowed and she tossed her head dramatically, making her dark brown ponytail swing back and forth like a pendulum.
Mai watched from one of the benches. A book of poetry, her secret love, was open on her lap. She was one year older than the other two, a quiet, observant girl who kept most of her thoughts to herself, rarely showing any emotion stronger than mild amusement or slight irritation. That wasn't to say that she didn't feel anything. Mai felt as acutely as anyone else, but after years of her mother and father shushing her, telling her to control herself, never to make any kind of spectacle, parading her around like an empty headed doll, she simply gave up and didn't bother anymore. It was too hard to express those feelings that were now residing somewhere down in her very depths. She was, quite simply, out of practice.
"If you can't do a perfect cartwheel yet, Azula, you never will." Mai looked back down at her book, not bothering to watch the expression on the princess's face change from one of annoyance to outright anger.
"I'll show you perfect." Azula gathered herself, using her considerable powers of concentration and mimicked Ty Lee's form exactly.
"Wow that was really good, Azula." Ty Lee clapped her hands together and smiled with genuine warmth. "I knew you could do it."
"Of course I can do a cartwheel, you idiot. I'm already a great firebender and at the top of all our classes. Do you really think a cartwheel would defeat me?"
"Um, no, but geez, Azula, they're supposed to be fun. I do them because I like to."
"Fun is a waste of time. Fun is for stupid children with no ambition. I'm going to help my father win the war as soon as he thinks I'm ready."
"Everyone should have fun sometimes," Ty Lee continued to protest.
"Oh, Ty Lee, you're so naïve." The princess sounded like a girl twice her age. It was frightening and intimidating and so very, very tragic.
The little acrobat looked crestfallen for a moment, but picked herself up quickly, something she was adept at, and gave the princess a smile. "Why don't you try one of these flips, 'zula? Watch!" She did a graceful back flip, the simple joy of the movement evident on her face. As she got into position to perform a second one, Azula gave her a vicious shove. Ty Lee fell, hard, and tears pricked at her eyes. "Azula, that hurt," she protested.
"I didn't ask you to do that back flip. Remember, I'm the one in charge, Ty Lee." She put her hands on her hips and tossed her head yet again. "And don't be such a baby."
From her spot on the bench, Mai continued to observe everything, peeking over the top of her book. It was always like this, their visits with Azula; the princess couldn't tolerate anyone besting her in anything. All the attention needed to be focused on her, because, in her mind, she deserved that attention far more than anyone else. The best thing one could do was remain neutral, not say much of anything, and avoid competitions. If for some reason you got roped into one, it was best to lose rather than face the princess's wrath.
But Ty Lee was an open, honest sort of soul, guileless really and she couldn't quite let go of the notion that Azula was her friend. And friends were supposed to support each other and actually care. Azula did neither.
Snapping her book shut, Mai eased herself up from the bench and approached Ty Lee. "I think it's time to go home," she informed the younger girl. She held out her hand and Ty Lee took it. "We have to go, Azula. My mother is expecting us for lunch. Ty Lee's been invited."
"Wouldn't you rather stay here? I'm certain your mother couldn't object to more time with the Princess of the Fire Nation." Azula stepped in Mai's way, and looked deep into her pale gold eyes. Was she searching for some kind of weakness, trying to detect a lie perhaps?
"We have to go," Mai reiterated with an even voice. She walked around the princess, tugging Ty Lee behind her. As soon as they rounded a corner of the garden path Mai let out a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. "Are you okay?" she asked her pink clad friend.
"Yeah, I'm okay." Ty Lee rubbed her knee. There was a bit of a scrape there and no doubt a bruise would show up shortly. "That was brave of you, Mai. I can't stand up to Azula at all."
Mai shrugged and the bits of raven black hair that fell past her shoulders moved with them. Her hair had recently been tugged into a more grown up style, her mother's idea, and Mai was all right with that. It wasn't often that she felt like a child anyway, so it seemed fitting. "I was bored and wanted to leave."
"She's not all bad, you know," the acrobatic girl began earnestly. "Remember that time she let us try on all her fancy clothes; that was fun. And she lets us eat anything from the kitchen we want and she's even taken us to Ember Island with her."
"That was because she didn't want to be stuck with Zuko,' Mai reminded her friend and immediately flushed a deep pink. The colour stood out dramatically against her pale skin and highlighted the delicate features of her beautiful face.
Ty Lee poked her teasingly in the side and giggled. "You always blush around Zuko and he blushes around you. It's so cute. I know he likes you, Mai. I can tell."
The black haired girl inwardly cursed the body that betrayed her. "Oh and how can you tell that?" Her curiosity was stronger now than her mask of boredom and made a tiny crack in it.
"Oh, Mai, he can hardly talk around you. He gets all tongue tied and adorable looking and blushes darker red than you just did. It's obvious to anyone with eyes." Ty Lee giggled again and linked her arm through Mai's.
Her first urge was to pull her arm away, but Mai didn't want Ty Lee to be hurt any further that day. She suppressed the urge and thought about Azula's brother, the prince, instead. "Do you think Azula knows?" Mai broached that subject carefully, almost afraid of the answer.
"Seriously, Mai, I wonder about you sometimes. Of course Azula knows. Don't you remember the time Zuko saved you from the burning apple? That was all Azula's idea. She figured you two had crushes on each other and wanted to see what Zuko would do."
They had reached the palace gates now and the guards opened it for them, moving aside to let the two girls pass. Mai flushed again as she recalled that day two years earlier. She had been so angry then, and so had Zuko, that she had stomped off home, dripping wet, and never mentioned the embarrassing incident to anyone. But in a secret corner of her heart, Mai cherished the memory. Zuko had saved her after all, whether she had needed it or not. And that 'crush' Azula thought she had, certainly was as strong as ever, stronger probably. Did crushes even last that long? She was under the impression they were fleeting things.
"Mai, whatcha thinking about; is it Zuko?"
"Are you coming in?" They stood at the base of the white stone staircase that led up to Mai's front door. She lived directly across from the palace. It was a location highly sought after, one attained only by garnering favor with the Fire Lord. Mai pointedly ignored Ty Lee's question.
"Sure," the girl replied and bounded happily up the stairs. The pain of her knee was already forgotten.
It was a week before Mai and Ty Lee were called to the palace again. Mai, for one, had enjoyed the break from Azula and had spent her days reading and practicing with her knives. Both the walls of her room, especially the one across from her bed and the lone tree in her garden were peppered with tiny nicks from her small collection of blades. It was a skill she honed in private, without benefit of a teacher, and it was one of the very few things she was proud of. Throwing knives was a strange hobby for a young girl, perhaps, but Mai didn't care. She didn't care that her parents preferred she do just about anything else. And she didn't care if the skill never came in handy. She enjoyed it and she would not give it up for anything or anyone. Besides, her Uncle Chung, warden of the Boiling Rock Prison, and the only relative she genuinely liked, did approve and encouraged her whenever he visited. He even brought her new blades, much to his sister's dismay. That gave Mai all the more reason to adore the man.
She met Ty Lee outside the palace gates.
"Hi, Mai," the girl called cheerfully. She was bouncing on her feet, a bundle of energy.
Mai tucked her hands into her sleeves and nodded. "Hey, Ty Lee."
The gates opened and they walked through the opening, Ty Lee chattering away like she always did, Mai listening quietly, ignoring the overly exuberant parts completely.
"There you are," the princess declared when they reached the unkempt looking gardens. "You're late."
Immediately, Ty Lee placated Azula, going on and on about how happy she and Mai were to be back at the palace. Mai turned her head and rolled her eyes. Really, Ty Lee could pour it on way to thick sometimes. It made her stomach turn.
"Fine, fine, get over here. I have something to show you." Azula beckoned them with a wave of her hand and the two girls moved closer, Ty Lee eagerly, Mai with more reluctance. "It's a new firebending move. Watch!" That last word was a clear demand.
So the two girls watched and even Mai had to admit that the move was impressive for a ten year old. Ty Lee clapped when the princess finished her demonstration. "Wow that was really amazing, Azula. Did you learn that this week?"
"Obviously; I'm already three forms ahead of Zuko and he's two years older. I'm a prodigy you know, and may become the greatest firebender our nation has ever seen. What do you think of that?"
'Ego much,' Mai thought. 'And always the jab at Zuko; she just can't resist.' She looked down at the ground, hiding the tiny bit of anger that sparked in her narrow eyes. And she wouldn't, she would not compliment Azula. The princess could push her to the ground all she wanted.
"I think that's amazing!" Ty Lee filled the void of silence nicely.
Her chest puffed out now, Azula led them further into the gardens, near the fountain. There was an entrance to the palace nearby. "You guys wait here. I have to go inside for a minute."
Ty Lee began to tumble across the grass. Her braid swung this way and that and her face grew pink from exertion. But Ty Lee looked happy, happier than any other time and Mai wondered if maybe she looked like that when she threw her knives.
In the distance, she spotted Prince Zuko; he was sitting by the turtleduck pond, always a favorite spot of his, but even more so after his mother's disappearance two years earlier. Daringly, Mai decided to go sit with him. Ty Lee was busy, and Azula had left them, so what was to stop her besides her own nervousness? "Um, I'm going to say hi to Zuko. Be back in a few minutes, Ty Lee."
"K, have fun," the girl crooned in reply.
"Fun," Mai mused. She wasn't quite sure what fun was. Mai did know, however, that she felt good when she sat near Zuko. That was incentive enough.
The twelve year old prince looked up shyly when she approached but, in a welcoming gesture, he patted the grass beside him and handed her a chunk of bread. "Look, Mai; there are new babies."
The mother turtleduck herded her miniature replicas around the pond, squawking loudly if anything or anyone got too close. Mai smiled and took the bread from Zuko. Their fingers brushed together for just a second but it was enough to make her breath hitch. Mai broke off tiny pieces and tossed them gently into the pond.
"They're cute," she offered.
"Yeah," Zuko agreed. "They are. You're here to see Azula, I guess?"
"Mmm," Mai acknowledged. "But I'd rather be here." The words slipped out before she could stop them. That never happened. Her blush was all encompassing, starting at her neck and working its way up her face, even tinting her ears pink.
Zuko's head jerked up, and his richly coloured gold eyes widened considerably. Was it so shocking that someone should want to spend time with him? Mai's heart constricted almost painfully in her chest and she wanted to reach out and touch Zuko, let him know the truth of her words.
"Y, you mean that?" he asked incredulously. Zuko was a handsome boy, with chiseled, regal looking features and skin almost as pale as Mai's. That skin was slowly turning pink too.
Her tongue felt like a stone in her mouth now and Mai couldn't make it move. So she nodded instead and put her hand over the prince's.
"I, I'm glad," he stammered.
A shadow fell over the pair. Mai and Zuko looked up and into Azula's eyes. They blazed with anger and jealousy and suddenly Mai was afraid.