"Ty Lee?" Suki called as she wandered down toward the beach. There were a pair of fans discarded by the side of the path; Suki retrieved them before continuing on. "Ty Lee!" she called, louder this time.
A few minutes ago, Suki had happened to pause and watch a group of girls at their afternoon practice. She had soon realized that they were missing their newest recruit. She had asked Miki, the woman leading the exercise, where Ty Lee had gone. Miki had frowned, pausing her demonstration to huff loudly. "She went that way," Miki had said, pointing toward the water, "Honestly, Suki, I don't know what to do with her!"
"What happened this time?" Suki had sighed. This wasn't the first she had heard of Ty Lee rubbing her teachers the wrong way.
Miki had shaken her head as she said, "She just doesn't get it. She'd disruptive, she's a show-off… Honestly, Suki, I don't know what you were thinking bringing a Fire Nation girl back to the island."
Suki couldn't help but bristle at the implication that this had all been her fault. "Did you even bother to talk to her?" Suki had scolded, "Or did you just chase her off when you decided she wasn't worth your time?"
Miki had glanced nervously at her students, a blush creeping onto her face. Her voice had dropped to a mutter to say, "Come on, Suki, not now. I have a class to run."
"Yeah, sorry," Suki had been quick to say. It hadn't been fair of her to challenge Miki in front of her pupils. They could continue this conversation later. "I'll go talk to her." As Miki resumed the lesson, Suki had begun descending toward the beach.
As dirt turned to sand, Suki began finding pieces of a Kyoshi Warrior uniform tossed across the path. She picked up each piece as she went.
She had collected an armful by the time she finally found Ty Lee. She was crouched by the water's edge in only a sleeveless halter and knee-length pants, her hair flopped clumsily to one side from when it had been pulled free of her headgear, her hands busily scrubbing the war paint from her face. Her eyes were red, and not just from the sting of the salt water.
"Ty Lee?" Suki called one more time, and Ty Lee looked up from the water with a pout.
"Hey, Suki," she said forlornly, sitting back in the sand and rubbing the water out of her eyes.
Suki sat beside her, dropping the bundle of clothing and weapons behind them. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked.
The answer was evidently yes, because Ty Lee began to shout, "Everybody hates me here! I thought I'd get to have a bunch of sisters, but they just get mad at me all the time! And then Miki had to go and shout at me in front of everybody…" She stuffed her hands into her lap and pouted ferociously.
Suki would have liked to have reassured Ty Lee that no one hated her, but she wasn't completely sure if that would have been a lie. "Why did Miki get so mad at you?" she asked.
"Oh," said Ty Lee dismissively, "She wouldn't let me make up my own moves when we were practicing form."
Suki sighed. "But Ty Lee," she said, "The whole point of practicing is to do the moves together, as a group. You can't just make up your own."
"But it's boring," Ty Lee protested, "You just do the same thing over and over. How is that supposed to make you a good fighter?"
Suki stood, brushing the sand off her legs. "Doing forms isn't about fighting," she said as she began to stretch her arms and legs, "It's about discipline. The Kyoshi Warriors work as a team. When we practice together, we're moving as one and becoming more in tune with each other. Do you see? When you go off and do your own thing, you're saying that you don't want to be a part of that. It's disrespectful."
"I didn't mean to disrespect anybody," Ty Lee muttered. Then she burst out with, "But I don't want to be a part of it. I came here because you guys are good fighters. I didn't think I'd have to look and fight and act just like everyone else."
Suki paused mid-stretch. "You think we all act the same?" she laughed, "You've been with us for a while now. Tell me about some of the girls you've met."
"Miki is mean and way too serious!" Ty Lee said instantly and vehemently. Then her voice softened and her face became thoughtful as she added, "Kari showed me how to do up the straps on my uniform on my first day here. Sagi's sister got killed by the Fire Nation, but she says she'll try to trust me anyway. And Nori makes faces to try to get the other girls to laugh during practice." She lifted her eyes to see Suki watching her. "Yeah, I get it. You're not all the same."
Suki nodded. "See? If you want to stay here with us, you don't have to change who you are," she said, "You just have to follow some of our rules."
Ty Lee blew out her cheeks as she frowned. "I hate following rules."
"Well, then give it your best shot at least," said Suki as she finished her warm up. "Let's try that form that you were doing with Miki one more time. Try to stay in step with me." She tossed Ty Lee the fans she had retrieved from the path.
Ty Lee caught them, spinning them effortlessly.
"Do I need to put the uniform back on?" she asked dubiously.
Suki gestured to her own outfit, which consisted of the skirt and smock in which she had been doing her chores.
"I'm not wearing mine," she pointed out, "I don't even have my fans. The uniform, the fans, the war paint – they're symbols. They help us remember and respect our history. They're important, but they don't make us better fighters. We do that ourselves."
Ty Lee looked intrigued as she took up the starting stance beside Suki. "Do you want to use one of my fans?" she said, "Then we'll both at least have one."
"Good idea," said Suki, taking the offered fan with a smile. Maybe Ty Lee was starting to get this teamwork thing after all. "Okay. Follow my lead."
Suki began moving through the simple form. She had learned it as a child. The steps came as naturally to her as breathing, but it was harder for Ty Lee. Even though the techniques weren't at all challenging for someone of Ty Lee's skill, she hadn't had time to build up the perfect muscle memory that Suki possessed. Suki slowed down just a bit, giving Ty Lee time between each step to find her place.
But as soon as Ty Lee began to feel comfortable in her movements, she started to deviate from the pattern. She took her eyes off of Suki, and quickly fell out of rhythm as she added little kicks and flourishes to the end of each technique.
Suki paused and cleared her throat, trying to remind Ty Lee without scolding her. Luckily, Ty Lee took the hint. She stopped her extraneous movements and fell back into step with Suki.
One form flowed into the next, with Suki barely pausing between them. Ty Lee kept pace, glancing over at Suki periodically to make sure that she was doing the right move at the right time. As they went, the lag between Suki's movements and Ty Lee's grew smaller and smaller until finally it disappeared. They were moving as one. Ty Lee wasn't glancing at Suki anymore, and Suki knew from experience that it was because she didn't need to. Even without looking, they could feel each other's energy. The push and pull of it kept them linked. This was what Suki had tried to explain to Ty Lee: a feeling of oneness that comes when two bodies move in perfect harmony.
They ended the final form with a bow.
"How did that feel?" asked Suki, beaming.
"It was good," said Ty Lee, "I can see what you meant about teamwork." But there was still something hesitant about her tone.
"Is something wrong?" said Suki.
Ty Lee scuffed her toe in the sand. "It's just…" she said, "I guess doing things as a group is okay, but I also want to be myself sometimes."
Suki's smile only grew. "That's the best part," she declared, "Now that you've gotten the hang of the form, let's move on to sparring."
Ty Lee perked up a bit. "What are the rules?" she asked.
"No rules," said Suki, "This is your chance to show me what you've got. Form is for discipline and teamwork. Sparring is for making sure that we can defend ourselves in a real fight. So don't hold back!"
Suki hadn't even given the call to begin before Ty Lee launched herself forward, instantly on the attack. It took all of Suki's speed to sidestep her and parry. Ty Lee flipped out of the way of Suki's counterattack, bending her body in a way that Suki hadn't thought possible. And then their trading of blows became so fast and acrobatic that it was all Suki could do to keep up.
No matter how many times Suki faced off against Ty Lee's fighting style, she could never seem to get a handle on it. It was unpredictable and deviously fast. Suki found herself ignoring much of what she had learned about countering specific styles, because none of it seemed to apply to fighting Ty Lee. She had to make things up as she went. It was exhilarating to have her skills pushed to their limits. She was inventing new moves on the fly, trying and failing to get one step ahead of her opponent.
When Ty Lee dropped to her knees and leaned backwards, skidding under Suki's leg as it swung in a roundhouse kick, Suki thought she had finally won. There was no way Ty Lee could recover her stance after a move like that. But even as Suki turned to take advantage of the moment, Ty Lee performed an explosive twist from her ankle and hip, leaping off the ground to punch Suki square in the face.
Suki flopped backwards onto the sand, holding her nose.
"I'M SO SORRY!" Ty Lee shrieked, her hands going to her mouth. It was clear that she believed that she had just lost her one friend on the island.
Suki reassured her with a broad grin, even though it hurt her bruised face. "How did you do that?" she said in wonderment, "Show me!"
The twisting movement required a lot of strength, and it was even more difficult to perform in loose sand, but Suki was determined. Ty Lee performed it again and again as Suki watched, and Suki mimicked her as best she could. Little by little, their renditions became indistinguishable. By the time Suki had mastered the little maneuver, it was starting to get dark.
Suki and Ty Lee walked back up the path together. Ty Lee had folded her uniform neatly and placed her fans on top of the stack, and she was carrying the bundle reverently. Suki was so sore that she was limping, but the smile didn't leave her face.
"I'm glad you came to live here with us, Ty Lee," she said as they approached the village.
Ty Lee turned to look at her, wide-eyed. "Really?" she said hopefully.
"Yeah!" said Suki, "We have a lot of history and traditions, which is great. But sometimes it's good to have someone around who can teach us something new."
Ty Lee beamed.
At the dojo, the evening class was just ending. Instead of passing by, Ty Lee bounded up the stairs and picked Miki out of the crowd. She bowed deeply at the waist and said, "I apologize for disrespecting you before."
Miki looked somewhat startled, but she nodded and said, "Okay. Thanks. I accept your apology." Then, at a glance from Suki, she added, "I'm sorry I yelled at you. I guess I was a little harsh."
Suki stepped forward then. "Miki," she said, "If Ty Lee does well in your class tomorrow, could she maybe take over teaching the first half of your sparring lesson? I think there are some things that she could teach us all."
By the time Suki had demonstrated the move Ty Lee had taught her a few times, every girl in the dojo was excited to learn it at tomorrow's practice. Some even begged Ty Lee to teach them then and there.
As they left the dojo, each girl going her separate way, Ty Lee caught Suki's sleeve. "Thank you for being my friend," she said, almost shyly.
Suki pulled Ty Lee into a tight one-armed hug. "Thank you for being mine."