In the dead of night, Master Piandao, slayer of a hundred men in a day, survivor of a hundred battlefields, artist, poet, certified Most Dangerous Human Alive, sat in his study, set down his cup, drew his chair into the stuttering candlelight, and planned.
"So... the not-useless ones can sit with Fat, and I can work through the below-expectations, and I can leave the above-expected to work independently, patrolling around every so often to make sure they're still on-task... no, I can't do that, because that leaves the Trouble Three unsupervised."
He sighed, and screwed up the lesson plan.
There were days when he regretted taking that teaching post. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time.
"Child, I am the greatest warrior of my generation. I have emptied towns of soldiers. I have been assailed by the mightiest champions of two nations. I am reliably informed that, for a period of over ten years, I was on record as the Dragon of the West's plan A. I have had my left leg broken in eight places; my right, in twelve. I have been burned, stabbed, shot with arrows. I have been crushed by rock and by ice. Yet I can say I have never, ever felt so profoundly pained as I am today, because today I am presented with what you have insulted me by calling your homework."
It was at this point that the young Princess, who had so far been enduring her dressing-down with mild amusement, decided that she quite liked her new teacher.
Piandao nodded, and made a deliberate mark on the register.
Piandao tried again.
Someone coughed. Piandao looked up. In a sudden panic, he realised that he couldn't see her anywhere.
Mai, Mai, where was- ah. There she was. There should really be a law against children getting new hairstyles. It made his job needlessly difficult.
The child was sitting cross-legged on the carpet, just like all the others, but her chin was resting on her hands, staring dully into space. Of course.
Nodding to the girl to her left, Piandao whispered theatrically.
"Someone give her a prod."
"Mai. Good of you to join us."
Master Piandao knew exactly why he had been hired to teach at the Royal Fire Academy For Girls. His charges (Year Two, ages six to seven) were twelve of the most important children in the Fire Nation, and, by extension, the entire world. Nothing spelled parental confidence like a class teacher that could turn a battle single-handed.
So far he had foiled three assassination attempts, six kidnappings, and a wholly overzealous proposal. That he had managed to fit in any education at all was an added bonus, and a testimony to his ability to make the most of opportunity.
"Now, girls," he said, as his charges formed a curious huddle, "I think it's time you learned a little bit about first aid. Firstly, identify the injury. This-" he wrenched the would-be assassin's arm back, and applied appropriate pressure "-is what a broken arm looks like."
As the night drew in, Piandao sighed, drew the stack of papers towards him, set down his cup of wine, and considered the smiley face.
He considered the smiley face to be an important part of his arsenal. Used judiciously, it could be an extremely powerful motivator. Not as powerful as The Colourful Sticker, of course, but everything had its place.
So far this term, Azula was well ahead in smiley faces, but oddly she didn't seem to care. It was not, however, Azula that was worrying him currently. His primary concern was Ty Lee.
The smiley face, as has been noted, was a powerful motivational tool, but even so, he felt, it was somewhat unusual for anyone to burst into gratified tears every time she found one applied to her work.
Piandao felt he could spot abandonment issues at work.
Parents' Evening was going to be enlightening.
"Alright, everyone, get into groups of four, and label yourselves one to four."
Piandao nodded as the group milled around the courtyard. One of the first things he had realised, when teaching physical education, was that it was always a mistake to let the children choose their own groups.
He had felt rather proud, when he came up with this trick.
"Alright, now. Number ones, step forward!"
Smartly, three girls separated from the throng.
"Alright, you are now group one. Number twos, step forward!"
Three more. Azula... Mai... and Ty Lee.
He frowned, but only internally. Azula beamed innocuously, which nicely served to confirm his suspicions.
Eventually, politics happened. As it was always going to. A new leader always means uncertainty in the education sector- what will the new Fire Lord consider important? Will he put together a national curriculum? Will he pay any attention at all to the unimportant but insistent voices talking about state funding for schools?
Piandao found himself worrying most about what the man was doing to his daughter.
Azula was, in many ways, a model student. She was, however, in every way that mattered, a nightmare unending for almost anyone interested in her development as a person. She was sharp, she was harsh, she was entirely self-centred.
This was not sufficient reason to give up on her.
In the weeks following Ozai's ascendance, she had become immeasurably worse. Before, she had been almost manageable, at least for him. She listened, and could be reasoned with.
After her grandfather died, though, she seemed to have learned some different lessons.
Piandao found himself unable to feel intimidated by the Fire Lord. As far as he was concerned, Ozai was simply one more impediment between his pupil and her own betterment.
Ever since her mother disappeared, Azula had taken to vanishing, at odd points during the day. Hiding during lunch break, or disappearing at the end of the day, with no explanation. Sometimes she failed to appear to his lessons.
Well. He had tracked more difficult quarry than this.
Er. Although generally he had meant to behead it once he caught up with it. Which was perhaps not a perfect metaphor.
She was sitting in the corner of the courtyard, perfectly still, expression unreadable. She didn't look up when he arrived, and squatted on his haunches, a little way away from her.
"Are you alright?" he asked. No answer, of course.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Nothing. Not a word. Again, hardly unexpected.
"Do you not want to talk about it? Shake your head, if you don't want to talk about it."
Slowly, she shook her head, once. Perfect. Maintain distance, leave her space to retreat if need be, while reminding her that she did not need to run.
"If you ever feel like talking, remember you always have people you can talk to."
He left it at that, and left without requiring an answer.
But she did return to his lessons, and he made a point of not mentioning it.