Hola to all! This oneshot is a reward to Fyre-Flakes, the 200th reviewer of OFUA:TLA. It's a bit late, because after I finished it on July 4th I went on to get distracted by my family, and then stuck in the middle of a lake at 11 pm with my relatives. Sorry Fyre-Flakes! Blame my family! Here it is, albeit a bit late!
Once upon a time in the Fire Nation, there were three friends. Their names were Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee.
Azula sits in her room at the mental hospital and stares at the wall. She doesn't know what else to do: her room has only a bed. Everything else is bare white walls, bare white ceiling, tiled floor…she knows exactly how many tiles are in the room. Two-hundred and eighty-nine, plus some partial tiles that are cut off at the walls. The extra tiles are big enough to make up nearly five more full tiles. She's thought about this—used a shoe to measure the tile lengths, done the math in her head.
She's spent her time thinking about the tiles because there's nothing else to think about. How Zuko, a traitor and a failure, had become Fire Lord instead of her…how Zuko's disgusting Waterbender friend had defeated Azula so soundly…how Ozai, the one person whose opinion mattered to Azula, had been overthrown and stripped of his Bending…
No. Better to worry about how many tiles there were in her room, and stare at the wall.
Doctors came to talk to her. She usually ignored them. Sometimes they brought her news of her brother and the Avatar. Seemed Zuko was trying to move the Fire Nation colonials back to the homeland…the fool. Even as Fire Lord, he was a traitor. Calling off the War? When the Fire Nation could well have achieved complete domination, Avatar or no Avatar? Azula wouldn't have let the Fire Nation do something so disgraceful as give up on the war.
Her meals are plain, unfit for a Princess. She wears a light red shirt and pants instead of the luxurious royal robes. Life has gone from the world at her feet…to meals of plain rice shoved through a flap in the door. Rarely did the doctors come without guards, in case Azula attacked, or tried to escape. Hmph. As if she could get out of this place. Its security was better than the Boiling Rock's. Azula knew this because she'd tried to escape on her first night there. Ten minutes later, she was stopped and returned to her room…after a stint in the facility's cooler.
It wasn't always like this. Azula can still remember when she was a child, and happy. She remembers when she had friends. Sometimes, at night, when she's staring at the ceiling, Azula doesn't even care that they betrayed her. All she knows is that she wants her friends back.
Azula studied Ty Lee's movements closely as the latter twisted in the air, her braid flipping around as she performed an aerial somersault. Ty Lee straightened just as she began to descend, bending her knees to absorb the impact. After a momentary pause, Ty Lee stood upright again and bowed.
"That's how it's done," Ty Lee smiled at her audience. Mai made a point of yawning. Azula pushed herself up off the grass.
"My turn!" Azula declared. She was confident she could replicate Ty Lee's movements perfectly. Why wouldn't she be able to? As a Firebending prodigy, she already knew many difficult forms. Her body was limber and toned, inasmuch as an eight-year-old's could be.
"Be careful," Ty Lee warned her friend. "You have to straighten out at the right moment, or you could fall on your head."
"Not a problem," Azula waved off the concern. Ty Lee sat down next to Mai under the large apple-tree and watched as Azula began to run forward. When Azula judged her speed was great enough, she launched herself into the air. As her feet left the ground, Azula began to pull herself inwards. She somersaulted once—then, as she began a second somersault, Azula realized she was too close to the ground to pull it off. If she didn't straighten out immediately, she would be upside-down when she hit the grass.
"Azula!" Ty Lee cried, seeing her friend's danger. She leapt to her feet and darted forward. Just as Azula was about to hit the ground, Ty Lee threw herself under her friend, catching Azula. They fell to the grass in a heap.
"I…I would have managed it…" Azula forced out. Her knees felt weak as she realized she was alright. For a moment Azula had feared she would snap her neck. Now she was relieved to be alive.
"Of course, Princess Azula," Ty Lee replied. She started to laugh, and after a beat Azula joined in. They lay there on the ground, laughing like fools, until Mai appeared standing over both of them.
"Did you knock your heads together?" Mai kneeled down. "You're acting like a couple of maniacs."
Mai lounges on her bed, staring at the ceiling. There are tiny pits and cracks in the plaster from where she threw knives at imaginary targets. Some holes are new, but most are old, the result of spending her childhood and preteen years tossing sharp objects around in the dark. Depressing times, to be sure, but Mai had developed the marksmanship skills she was now feared for.
Now she considers throwing a knife at the ceiling again. She's just broken up with Zuko, and after storming out of the Palace's throne room she came right home. Her parents took Tom-Tom to Ember Island for the weekend. When they get back, they'll be furious—doesn't Mai understand how useful it is for them to be the parents of the Fire Lord's girlfriend? Can't she go back and apologize to Zuko? What does it matter how she feels, when her father's career could depend on Mai's relationship with the Fire Lord?
Her lip curls up. Maybe, somewhere in their hearts, her parents actually do care for her. It must be a small part. They had used Mai's friendship with Azula to further their interests when Mai was a child, always asking Mai to speak to the Princess, saying Mai should ask Azula to ask her father about something. Using their child like that…Mai had lost respect for her parents long ago. She only stayed with them because she loved them, and even that was questionable at times.
Thinking of her friends gives Mai a fresh wave of sadness. She called the Kyoshi Warriors to be Zuko's bodyguards, but that's the only thing they're doing. Ty Lee is too busy to spend time with her oldest and best friend. Breaking up with Zuko seems to have taken away the last few friends Mai had.
She wishes things were different. Wasn't it so much easier when she was a child?
Mai watched as Ty Lee instructed Azula how to properly execute a double aerial somersault. She doesn't have any interest in learning herself, despite Ty Lee's offer to teach her too. Azula stumbles as she lands—a great Firebender the Princess may be, but an acrobat she is not. Angered at her slip, Azula punches into the air. A gout of yellow flame launches from her fist, singeing the leaves of the apple tree overhead.
"You'll get it in time," Ty Lee said. "You just need to keep practicing! It's taken me forever to get this good."
"You're not that good," Azula stomped her foot. "Right, Mai?"
"Sure," Mai nodded. So bored…her afternoons with the Princess and Ty Lee always turned out like this. They would go to the garden on the Palace's outskirts, the one with the apple tree and the fountain, and while Ty Lee showed Azula acrobatic moves Mai sat under the tree and watched. This was Azula's favorite garden. Even though Azula's father was Fire Lord now, she still returned to this garden in her family's old villa. Maybe it was nostalgia? If Mai actually cared, she might ask.
"It's time for a break," Ty Lee suggested. "Azula, do you want to play Hide-and-Explode? We have the villa and its grounds all to ourselves! It'll be great!"
"Sounds fun," Azula agreed. "Mai, get up! We're going to play Hide-and-Explode now!"
"Do we have to?" Mai heaved a sigh as she pushed herself up. "I was having so much fun already." Sarcasm drips from her voice, not lost on Azula or Ty Lee. "Can't we at least get your brother to play with us?"
"He's training with Master Piandao," Azula wrinkled her nose. "Broadswords. Father thinks it'll toughen Zuzu up, so he's allowing it. Zuko's not even that good."
"All right," Mai said. It didn't matter if Zuko joined them, anyways, Mai would still hate playing. She just thought it would be polite to ask him. Her parents would love it if she managed to play with the Crown Prince and the Princess. It's not like Mai liked Zuko. No, definitely not…he was just the one person she didn't really hate.
"Let's go!" Ty Lee seizes Mai and Azula's hands. "I'll look first. You two go hide! On the count of a hundred I'll come looking for you! One, two, three…hurry, go!...four, five…!"
Ty Lee stands at attention outside Zuko's bedroom. Chi Sen, another Kyoshi Warrior, is on the other side of the door. Nothing has happened so far all night. Normal Fire Nation guards would have relaxed, let down their guard, but not the Kyoshi Warriors. They don't even pass the time with conversation. All of their attention is focused on their surroundings. When a shadow shifts, they take note: if an animal makes a sound, they're on the alert.
Being a Kyoshi Warrior is one of the best things in the world, to Ty Lee's mind. She's a little amused by the irony. Ty Lee joined the circus to be an individual, her own person, not someone lumped in with her sisters. Now that she's a Kyoshi Warrior, the only thing to distinguish her from her fellow fighters is her hairstyle. Everything else, the makeup, the uniform, the fighting style…she's part of a matched set, the very thing she used to hate.
Chi Sen shifts her weight, and Ty Lee's eyes slide over to her, checking in case someone else was there. It's just Chi Sen, so Ty Lee returns her gaze forward.
It's nice, to have friends like the Kyoshi Warriors. They're such a tight-knit group, knowing almost everything about each other. What was the word Suki used to describe them…"nakama"? It meant the Kyoshi Warriors were closer than friends or family could be. A Kyoshi Warrior in trouble could trust that her fellow warriors would come to her aid.
She used to have more friends like that. Mai for sure. Azula, probably…
It was Mai's day to teach Azula something, and Ty Lee found herself sitting on the sidelines in Mai's stead. She watched as Mai instructed Azula how to properly throw a knife. They were using the apple tree as a target, so Ty Lee was on the edge of the fountain. Mai's dagger hit the dead center of a knot in the trunk, and Azula's went wide by half a foot.
"Remember, it's all in the wrist," Mai demonstrated the flicking motion Azula was trying to achieve. "Timing and force is important, but if you want to hit the target you need to get the wrist just right. Don't force it, because tense muscles will throw off your timing."
"This is easy," Azula was confident in herself, and Ty Lee knew it would be only a matter of time until Azula mastered the skill. The Princess was dedicated to perfection, drilling herself endlessly until she could do something as good as or better than her teacher. For things like Firebending, fighting, military history, Azula had a natural gift. When she didn't have that gift to ease her learning, Azula forced herself to be the best…to be perfect.
Sometimes Ty Lee wondered if the only reason Azula was friends with Mai and Ty Lee was because they had natural gifts for skills Azula didn't have yet. Ty Lee's usual role when they played together was teaching Azula acrobatics. Mai's marksmanship would always outstrip Azula's, as was clear with Azula's current difficulties. If Ty Lee ever stopped being useful to Azula, though…
Good thing Ty Lee had a skill Azula could never learn. Even now, as she watched her friends practice, Ty Lee could see their auras: Mai's dingy gray, and the angry red-blue-purple swirl of Azula. Mai's aura was a puzzle to Ty Lee. Didn't Mai have everything she could ever want? Wasn't her family already amongst the upper echelons of Fire Nation society? How such a sad, uncaring aura could exist in someone from that background was a mystery to Ty Lee, whose family was in the lowest orders of nobility and had barely enough money to keep up their current lifestyle.
Azula's aura was less a mystery. The Princess's determination and domineering personality was plain to read in her aura. Strength of conviction and icy detachment whirled around in Azula. She was a dangerous person, as Ty Lee had known since first seeing the girl. It could be scary, as Azula's friend, to know that Azula would not hesitate to abandon her if it was necessary.
"Enough of this," Azula decided as her last knife buried itself in a tree branch. "Mai, Ty Lee, you have to see the new technique my Firebender master taught me! It's so amazing! They say my grandfather Azulon could do it too, and that only the strongest Firebenders can manage it."
"Really?" Ty Lee's eyes widened at the thought. "What is it? Lightning? I heard only the Royal Family can learn to make lightning! Are you going to show us lightning?"
"No, stupid," Azula rolled her eyes. "Lightning's easy. My dad already taught me how to do it, but he says I shouldn't use it in the Royal Caldera. I'm talking about blue fire!"
"Blue?" Ty Lee's mouth formed an "o" in astonishment. "I thought the hottest color any Firebender could make was yellow! Are you saying you can go even hotter?"
"I can!" Azula puffed out her chest in pride. Mai shrugged and went to sit next to Ty Lee on the fountain's rim.
"Show us already," Mai crossed her arms. Azula glared at her for a second, then straightened her back and took a deep breath. She exhaled, bringing her arms up, and yellow fire flickered at her fingertips. Ty Lee gasped as the fire lightened to blue.
"See?" Azula spared a moment to grin at her friends. The fire flared up, and Azula returned her full attention to it. "It'll get easier to control as I work on the technique," Azula spoke as she focused on the fire. "Isn't it pretty?"
"That's amazing, Azula! You really are the greatest Firebender in the world!" Ty Lee leaned forward.
"I know," Azula compressed the fire into a single blue flame. She inhaled and exhaled again, spreading her hands apart and arcing the fire.
What happened next was completely out of Azula's control. A bearded cat chased a lizardkeet into the garden, and the two shot right between Azula's legs. Distracted, Azula lost control of her blue fire and it flared up, turning yellow and orange as it did. Mai cried out in surprise and ducked down. Ty Lee, who felt the fire's heat and panicked, propelled herself backwards into the fountain.
It seemed Ty Lee had chosen the worst spot to sit, because as she splashed backwards into the water her head hit a piece of the sculpture in the middle of the fountain. She blacked out as the water closed over her head.
When she woke up, she was lying prone on the grass, with Mai and Ty Lee hovering over her. The yellow of worry was streaking their auras. "Ty Lee!" Azula cried as she saw her friend's eyes open. "You…how dare you scare me like that!"
"I'm sorry, Princess…" Ty Lee gasped. "I promise I won't—"
Azula silenced her friend with a hug. Still woozy, Ty Lee patted her back. Mai stood a foot away, watching the two of them like she always did, until Azula looked up and gestured for Mai to join the hug as well. Then Mai surged down and wrapped her arms around them both.
"Please don't do that again!" Mai buried her face in Ty Lee's shoulder. Ty Lee worked her arms around Azula and Mai, rubbing their backs.
"Don't worry, I won't," Ty Lee assured them.
"You'd better not!" Azula started to shake as she valiantly held back tears. "I was so scared that I'd lost you…because you, you and Mai, you're my best friends…"
Once upon a time in the Fire Nation, there were three friends. As children, they were happy.
Now, those happy times are long gone.