Please note: As it progresses, this story may eventually contain themes and language that some readers may be uncomfortable with. Please use your discretion if you are easily triggered. At the moment, it doesn't pass a T rating; if content dictates, I will change the rating accordingly.

Pretty in Pink
Neko Kuroban
Part One

X X X X X

Like most good stories (and all good love stories), what follows never really happened—but why should that make it any less real?

X X X X X

When Ty Lee Hack was in second grade, she had a teacher who was young and desperate. She had never recognized that, not in the way the other children did. Little girls are only small and adorable to outsiders, not to their own; within their own spheres of power, they can pick up on the smell of blood in the water from a thousand yards away, but Ty Lee had not possessed that capacity for cruelty—that did not come

(would not come)

until later.

As far as she was concerned at age seven, their homeroom teacher simply reminded her in a comfortable, familiar way of her oldest sister, whose hair made curls and who was easily upset, too. Half a lifetime later—hers—she will find a class photograph, curling at the corners, and realize with a jolt that what she had perceived had not been true: Miss Sach's hair is crinkled frizz rather than Linh's rich waves, and Linh had been thirteen and in her door-slamming, full body-pouting phase. She had been antagonistic one moment, clashing with their mother and father and insisting that her friends and acquaintences spell her name the American way – Lynn – at school rather than the Vietnamese Linh. The next she would be sitting in the girls' shared room, brushing Ty Lee's hair out, telling her stories before bed. Do you know why your name means what it does, little sister?

(And Ty Lee knew, even then, that her name was Anglicized in a way that her sisters' were not—her parents' attempt at conformity, a symbol of their hope that things would be easier for her than they had been for the three older girls—but she knew just as well that her name, her real name, meant snow white. She had heard the old fairy story a hundred and two times, but every time she insisted that she had forgotten, just so Linh would recite the story about love like a moonbeam upon the waves. She would emphasize certain scenes with a wave of the heavy wooden brush and time her words and her minstrations just right so that she was tying ribbons around Ty Lee's braids just as the maiden was marrying a politician rather than her lover.)

Miss Sach's "easily upset" was something completely different. Sometimes a girl would make a remark she had not been expecting, and she would stand in silence, fists curled at her sides in impotent rage. Ty Lee had alternated between abject hatred and pity: one day Azula Hamill would do something, and it would be Ty Lee who was dragged by her arm into the hallway, not Azula; it would be Ty Lee whose father was telephoned at work, not Azula's. (Even then, Ty Lee had understood that adults used her as the whipping girl, but she had not yet begun to resent it.) The next morning, Ty Lee—early to school, because Ket Thao thought it was a sin to be late for school and Mama said the girls had to walk together, even though Ty Lee would have loved to wait for Linh and Sang—would tiptoe into the classroom to find her teacher sitting at her desk, head buried in her arms and sobbing.

No one had been surprised when Miss Sach announced that she wouldn't be returning after the winter holidays. Not really.

And she tried her best to make the last day enjoyable. There was a festivity in the air during morning assembly in the hall, and the teachers who usually patrolled the corridors seemed indulgent in a way they usually were not. Katara Whitman, then the strange new girl who everyone knew didn't have a mother, waving her hand to be noticed, even during the headmistress's opening remarks, was met with an indulgent smile and permission to go on rather than a murmured correction.

(Ty Lee's mother worked in the bursar's office of their school, and she was always trying to pressure Ty Lee to befriend her.

"She's a bit of a pistol, but she's really a very kind little girl, but I think she might be lonely," Mama said in one of their rare moments alone. "Do you know how easy it can be to become lonely when you're in a new place? Imagine if you didn't have your sisters with you when you moved. You never know—she might become one of your best friends."

"I have a best friend already," Ty Lee said in her very most grown up voice, as if she was explaining something, but the truth was that a scholarship kid—and, worse, a scholarship kid who wore her brother's hand-me-downs on days when they were allowed to wear street clothes—was below even a faculty member's daughter whose tuition was waived. "I have two, if you count Mai. Azula doesn't like Katara because she's weird, and Mai doesn't even know her, and what would I do with three best friends?"

Mama had widened her eyes Ty Lee and feigned surprise, the way she did when any of the girls tried to respond to her guidance with sullenness. "Goodness! I didn't know there was a limit to how many friends one can have. I need to let all of mine know so we can divvy it up," she added, and Ty Lee had to surrender to giggling. "How does one go about telling—oh!" She seized Ty Lee's small hand and placed it on the swell of her pregnant belly. "The baby's quickening. Feel! Feel.")

In their classroom, there were the usual holiday festivities—not just Christmas but Hannukah and Kwanzaa and Aimee talked very smugly about Solstice once she realized that she was the only one in their class who knew what it was, let alone celebrated it. There were crafts to make and a grainy animated film to watch and punch to drink that left Ty Lee with a Kool Aid mustache and cookies to eat, the kind of sugar cookies that came in discounted plastic boxes at the supermarket bakery, as if their teacher was attempting to atone for the past three months.

But the final half hour was left unaccounted for, and Miss Sach, at a loss, had announced that they were going to play a game. She removed a key from her own keyring—the one to the big wooden supply cabinet where the manila paper and tempera paints were kept—and instructed every girl in the room to put her head down and cover her eyes, an instruction Azula ignored in favor of practicing her already perfect penmanship.

"I'm not playing," she insisted when Ty Lee tried to urge her to obey. "Games are for babies," she added pointedly, looking Ty Lee up and down with more judgment than, even in retrospect, seemed possible from a little girl who was six going on seven.

Another girl would have blinked away tears, but Ty Lee had sisters. She was accustomed to this. "But, Azula," she tried, trying to whisper so that she would not be caught. "What if it's fun? Or what if you get a prize when you win? Don't you want to see?"

Perhaps it was for the best that Azula refrained from joining in, because something odd happened: Ty Lee knew the key was under the flower pot on the windowsill as soon as Miss Sach announced that they could raise their heads. She handed it to her not fifteen seconds later. She knew where it was the second and third time, too—beneath a stack of books and behind the terrarium where the ancient turtle lived. The fourth round, she knew it was inside of an empty desk, but Aimee and Hannah were already whispering that she must be cheating and stealing glances when everyone else hid their eyes so she let the round drag on several minutes until Katara Whitman—excited and triumphant, like she had found something worth finding—discovered the scrap of metal.

The fifth seeemed to last an eternity, but Ty Lee sat at her desk, fidgeting, until she noticed her teacher looking at her as if giving her permission. She hopped up from her seat, grateful to be able to do something, and retrieved the key from where it was taped to the wall behind a luridly colored poster. She presented it with a flourish, just minutes before the bell chimed to signal the end of the day.

Miss Sach called her over at the end of the day, and Ty Lee complied—because when an adult told you to do something, you did it, even if Azula was standing a dozen feet away in her little red velvet coat with the white rabbit fur collar and white rabbit fur muff that Ty Lee was fiercely jealous of, even though Sang pretended to shudder everytime she saw it and insisted that it was cruel. Everyone else was trickling out of the room, in groups of two and three, and she saw Azula spin on the heel of her mirror-bright patent leather shoe and sweep out of the classroom, which was a sure sign that Ty Lee would have to run to find her and apologize about thirty times.

The woman knelt. "You have a gift. You know things other people don't, don't you?"

No, Ty Lee wanted to say. I don't know stories like my sister Linh, and I don't know about animals like my sister Sang, and Azula's way better than I am at spelling and math and remembering things, and her brother Zuko knows all kinds of stuff I don't, even though he thinks he doesn't, and my sister Ket—

What she actually said was this: "Sometimes."

X X X X X

If it was a gift, it was one Ty Lee could not possibly take seriously. It provided an endless source of amusement over the years, the same way it had for her mother and grandmother, who always had the neighborhood wives over, sitting around the kitchen table to giggle and to carry on over loose tea leaves and the future.

In sixth grade, Ty Lee made birthday charts for all of her friends as a Christmas gift—Mai's was plain and dull, a few stapled pages; she had tied Zuko's with ribbon stolen straight from her four-year-old sister's braids, and used different colors of ink and tried to use positive, cheerful words and exclamation marks; but Azula's was the one she had spent the most time and effort on, a poster board that showered pink glitter onto the carpet every time it was moved.

Throughout middle school, she was invited to every slumber party, which meant Azula was, too, even though Ty Lee knew it annoyed her best friend when she became the center of attention the second candles were lit and the Ouija board came out. But Ty Lee relished the attention it brought, even when she was in her first year of high school and girls, even much older girls, began queueing up to have her read their palms and do Tarot spreads in study hall. Ty Lee began to charge, and she was shocked when girls responded with enthusiasm. Her mother and grandmother would be aghast, but Ty Lee tried to reconcile it with herself: it was all harmless and a good way to collect pocket money, right? The praise that came when she told people what they wanted to hear about the paths their lives would take would have been reward enough, but forty dollars for a Celtic cross didn't hurt—and it enabled her to keep up with her friends, all of whom always had much more spending money than she did.

"I can't believe people fall for that," Azula remarked to no one in particular, not looking up from her textbook.

Ty Lee, who had been in the middle of reassuring a tearful sophomore girl that, no, her boyfriend wouldn't break up with her just because she cheated on him, was stung, but she tried to hide it. "Azula doesn't believe in mysticism," she told the upperclassman grandly, focusing all of her attention on her. "It's because of the star she was born under. She's a natural skeptic. Even when we were kids, she's never believed in anything—not Santa Claus, not Tarot cards, not horoscopes, not God—"

She hadn't even realized Azula had gotten up until she heard the door to the library slam closed.

Shit.

X X X X X

Ty Lee pretended to have a gift, and, okay, she could find things that were missing and she could read auras and she could deliver a cold reading that is good enough to convince a stranger that she knows far more about them than she actually does, but she was no more prophet than any passing woman on the street—

After all, if she had been, she surely would have been able to brace herself for everything that followed.