One of these days, Mai thought, she was really going to have to explain the concept of a stake-out to Ty Lee. Again. Because Ty Lee seemed to have forgotten one of the most important details: silence.
"I just don't know if black is my color!" Ty Lee said, concluding a ramble that had involved fashion, career choices, acrobat techniques, and some other things that Mai hadn't really been paying attention to.
Mai rolled her eyes, which was useless in the dark but made her feel better.
"Come on," she said. "It's time."
And Ty Lee was actually quiet as she slid down the silk rope to the ground.
Almost two years earlier, Mai had told Zuko that she didn't want to get married to him. They were laying around in her sitting room alone, irritable in the summer, wearing the lightest of silks. Zuko had just proposed, like she'd been expecting for weeks. He sat up and gave her a confused look.
"But I thought--"
Mai cut him off, shaking her head. She didn't know how to explain it to him; they had never been very good at communication, and that was as much her fault as Zuko's. A few years ago, Mai had thought she would grow up and marry Zuko. They had practically been betrothed after the war ended. She might have married him then, if he'd asked, but he had other priorities, and she wasn't begrudging that. It was just after a while that she'd realized there was more to the world, and she didn't want to give that up to be Fire Lady. The thought of living her whole life as a politician and diplomat made her feel ill.
And she'd never dated anyone else. (She'd never found any other boy very interesting. It wasn't until a year later that she'd realized why.) She'd lived a sheltered life. Even her knife targets were chosen for her.
It was time for change.
"Ty Lee and I are going to be bounty hunters," she told Zuko. He blinked as if she had spoken in a different language.
"Someone needs to catch your father's old generals and enforcers. We're going to do it," she said impatiently.
Zuko still looked confused, and a bit hurt. She got up and kissed him on the cheek. "I'm sorry," she whispered in his ear. She really hadn't wanted to hurt him, but she had no choice. Someone was going to hurt after this conversation. It was that kind of discussion.
She crossed the floor, her feet silent on the carpet, and she paused at the door.
"I don't want to be a wife," she said, and left him there.
This was supposed to be an easy bounty. The man they were after had been a high-ranking bureaucrat, better known for his filing system than his fists. Of course, that didn't mean he was stupid; they knew he'd hired bodyguards.
But they were the Dangerous Ladies (and it didn't matter that Azula was missing, not now, because she was the wrong kind of dangerous, all broken bottles and fire that burned cold, too much hurt to deal with anymore). They weren't going to let bodyguards stop them.
So Ty Lee went in first, her fingers dancing across muscle. And when the men were stumbling around comically, Mai followed, her daggers sure. She made a game out of not drawing blood, pinning them to walls and floors like gigantic, angry butterflies.
The silence did not keep; the bodyguards roared. When the scene was still, Ty Lee and Mai exchanged a look. The man they were after had not run out of the back room. They'd have to go in after him.
Mai nodded, just a little, and Ty Lee put a hand on the door.
It had taken him some time, but Zuko had come around. Really, they were better friends than lovers, especially after Mai had spent enough time with Ty Lee to realize what she wanted. At first, it had just been an arrangement of friendship, of course. Mai had made that clear. She had no desire to use Ty Lee as Azula had, only a partial partner in a game where only one person knew all the moves and pieces. Ty Lee deserved better.
Ty Lee deserved a friend.
And Ty Lee had plenty of friends. She had the Kyoshi Warriors and the Avatar's friends and anyone whom she paused to talk to for more than about twenty minutes. But it wasn't the same, Ty Lee tried to explain to Mai, her voice earnest.
"I missed you," Ty Lee said over dinner at the palace one night. Mai often ate there in her official capacity as the Fire Lord's advisor, and her unofficial one as his probably-future-fiancee. He wasn't there for dinner that night, holed up in his study with Sokka and Aang and a number of pompous officials, discussing a trade agreement of some kind. At least, that's what Mai thought he was doing. They'd been in there all day.
"You left Kyoshi because you missed me?" Mai lifted her eyebrows in surprise. Ty Lee was impulsive, no one would deny that, but she'd seemed pretty determined about becoming a Warrior, and Mai had thought she'd be good at it.
"No, no. Not entirely. Everyone was really nice to me. The girls are really great! But it's just..." Ty Lee looked down at her food and bit her lip. "The war was over for them. They didn't want to think about it. So when I tried to talk, they just wanted to cheer me up. They didn't want to listen. And my aura won't stay pink unless someone listens to me."
Mai hadn't thought about something like that, although it made sense after a moment's consideration. The Warriors were isolated on their island. From what she understood, they almost never left. It wasn't surprising that they wanted to put the war behind them for a while and move on.
Not surprising, but not very smart in Mai's opinion. She shook her head.
"You never shut up. I have to listen," she said, and Ty Lee beamed.
As soon as Ty Lee's fingers caught the edge of the screen separating the front room from the back room, the ground rumbled beneath them. Mai almost lost her footing in surprise, but there was no mistaking it: this man also had earthbending bodyguards. Before she could lift a foot, they were embedded in the rough dirt floor. She growled in frustration. This was totally going to ruin her boots.
She didn't really want to dull her knives digging herself out. They didn't make very good shovels. But it was that or her nails, and she liked to keep those in reserve for very close-up fighting. She leaned down and started working at her boots.
"All this dirt is gross," Ty Lee complained, leaning down to dig out her own feet. That statement was, oddly enough, met by a booming laugh. The screen slid over and their target walked into the room, flanked by a pair of earthbenders wearing the crest of his household.
Good, Mai thought, one for each of them. Her knife disappeared into the ground and did not return. She let it go.
"You fell right for it!" the target said gleefully. "But what can you expect from noble daughters without real combat experience? I had it on very good authority, you know, that Fire Lord Azula, her flame be praised, was the real heart of your group. I see my source was correct."
He stood over Mai, creating a shadow over her face. He probably missed her rolling her eyes. She stood up straight, leaving her feet for now.
"How do you know I'm out of knives?" she asked.
The bodyguards that Ty Lee had disabled were beginning to struggle again, as were the ones she had pinned. They had to take care of this quickly. She was just glad that the earthbenders weren't helping the other thugs.
"Draw a knife if you want," he said in that same condescending tone. "My guards have been trained against knife fighters. They'll bury you in a second. Heh! Bury!"
He snorted in laughter at his own joke. Mai was done with this. She reached out with all of her strength and pushed the man toward Ty Lee.
Ty Lee knew what to do next.
Sometimes, very deep down, Mai envied Ty Lee's ease at socialization. It would have made doing what was expected of her much easier. Mai simply wasn't any good at approaching people. It had been Ty Lee that approached her first, all those years ago when they were going to the Academy together. It was Ty Lee approaching her now. They had been bounty-hunting for almost six months now, the further from the capital the better. They had a routine. Mai wasn't sure if they should break it.
"How did you know you could kiss me?" Mai asked. It was late now. Their bounty, a silly courtesan who might know where the local cell of Ozai-supporters were meeting, had been turned into the local police and they had beds at the local inn, two narrow ones that at least smelled of clean straw. This afternoon, while they were undercover as a giddy young newly-married couple, Ty Lee had kissed her like it was nothing.
But it hadn't been nothing. Not for Mai.
"It just seemed right," Ty Lee said. "Our auras are beginning to match at the edges. And married people kiss a lot."
"I like you, Mai. But if you don't want me to kiss you anymore, I won't," Ty Lee said.
"Come over here," Mai said, and when Ty Lee's weight settled onto the bed next to her, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Ty Lee caught the accountant with deft hands working at his pressure points. He fell like a brick and she pulled her feet free of her boots and clambered onto his back. Anything not to be standing in the dirt, Mai assumed. It was a good strategy.
She wasn't sure her own feet could bend like that, so she settled for drawing three knives in quick succession. This time she didn't care about drawing blood -- anything to push the earthbenders off balance. The one nearer to her cried out, horrified by the metal in his ankles.
(The trick to disabling earthbenders was to hurt their feet. Toph had taught her that once when making fun of Zuko. It had been the only one of Toph's stories Mai had honestly enjoyed.)
She pulled at her feet, irritated by the suction of the dirt.
"Let me out and I won't tell anyone you were here," she said to the bleeding earthbender, whose eyes were rolling white with pain. (She hadn't even used very big knives, geez.) He made a fist and the pressure on her ankles tightened. Great. Then he fell to the floor and started working at her daggers. If he would have listened to her, Mai would have told him that was a bad idea, that he'd bleed more that way. But he wasn't in the mood for listening, so she pinned his shirt sleeves to his pant sleeves and hoped that would buy them some time.
Ty Lee kicked the other earthbender in the knee, and the earthbender stumbled backwards. That one was probably female, slender but wiry with a long braid that hung down to her knees. It had a metal ring weighting it down. She didn't have a very strong stance at all. No wonder the target had been able to hire earthbending bodyguards. They weren't skilled enough for work in the Earth Kingdom, she'd bet, but out here in the colonies, they knew more than the people who had been forced to hide their strengths for most of their lives.
Mai drew another knife and aimed carefully. The earthbender's braid became lopsided, and she shouted something in dismay. Her male partner was keening now with upset, and the female looked around and seemed to come to a decision. She wasn't prepared to fight both Mai and Ty Lee, so she grabbed her partner by the collar and made for the door, dragging him along behind her. (She'd been paid in advance, Mai thought. Bad choice with bodyguards.) Mai let her go. They had the bounty, and that was what mattered.
Her feet ached, though, and as soon as Ty Lee had tied the accountant up firmly, she came over to help dig Mai out. Mai muttered things about inconsiderate earthbenders, and increasingly violent threats toward such. Ty Lee hummed, not minding her own bare feet. There was a smudge of dirt on her cheek and Mai wanted to wipe it off for her.
Later that night, Ty Lee rubbed Mai's feet and consoled her about the loss of her boots, and then they went to bed together to work out the rest of Ty Lee's adrenaline. Boots or not, Mai felt like she'd came out ahead.
Maybe it was a life that seemed strange to other people, but it was hers, and she didn't hate it too much. Maybe she even liked it.