Mai dropped to the ground at Ty Lee's warning and felt the fireball pass right over her head, leaving the pungent smell of singed hair in its wake. These particular Ozai loyalists were almost competent, it would seem.
"Okay, that is it," she muttered, pulling a shuriken from her sleeve and spinning back to face her attackers, keeping close to the ground.
Ty Lee was giving them a run for their money, moving so fast that their shots were missing wildly. But it was four against one at the moment, and Mai didn't see why she should let Ty Lee have all the fun. She pulled three more knives from her boots and took the opportunity to calculate her next move while no one was paying attention to her.
Ty Lee caught her eye and readied herself as Mai nodded at her. Her first throw sent a blade flying towards the leader of the firebenders, causing her to lurch to the side and right into Ty Lee's path, who threw her to the ground with a few tight, precise blows. After that the other three were easy, and it wasn't long before they were all either pinned to the walls of the alleyway or prone on the ground, groaning as they tried pointlessly to conjure up their fire.
"For a minute, that was almost interesting," Mai said, walking to stand over their leader, who promptly spat on her boot. She sighed. "Fine. Ty Lee, go get the authorities. I'm sure they'll be very interested in this situation."
"On it!" Ty Lee said brightly, cartwheeling away.
"Traitor," one of the others hissed. "Working with lowlife earthbenders. You betrayed the true Fire Lord! Now they say you're lying with that faithless usurper, Zuko."
Mai pointed a shuriken at the man's neck. "I'd keep quiet if I were you. Anyway, Zuko and I aren't even --" She shook her head. "Never mind that." She stepped on his throat, applying pressure just shy of blocking his airway. That shut him up.
Mercifully, it wasn't long before Ty Lee came back with a group of earthbender police officers, who quickly got the four firebenders handcuffed and into the back of a cart. Mai sent them off with a cheery wave.
"Well then," she said, turning to Ty Lee. "Dinner?"
Ty Lee was staring at her back. "Your shoulder!" she gasped.
Mai twisted to look, but couldn't see much beyond a hint of burnt fabric. "What?" She went to feel her shoulderblade and winced as her fingertips pressed into burnt skin. "Oh. I didn't realise. Is it bad?"
Ty Lee winced, pulling back some of the fabric to get a better look at the injury. "Come on, we have to get you back and then I can fix you up."
"I can't even feel it, I'm sure it's fine," Mai said, but as soon as she spoke she felt a surge of pain blister across her skin and cried out in spite of herself.
Ty Lee grabbed Mai's uninjured arm, wrapped it around her shoulders, and half-carried her all the way back to the inn they'd be calling home for the past month.
"Just stay still," said Ty Lee.
"Couldn't move even if I wanted to," said Mai, pinned to the bed by Ty Lee's knees on either side of her waist, but she obeyed, lying on her front and keeping as still as possible while Ty Lee hovered above her with a pot of lotion.
"This is probably going to sting."
Ty Lee was right; it did sting. But the combination of Ty Lee's warm hands and the cool, soothing properties of the lotion were a good kind of pain, and so she gritted her teeth and didn't make a sound.
Ty Lee reached for the bandages and made quick work of wrapping up the injured area. Mai flexed her shoulder - it was still sore, but she had a little more movement in it now.
She started to get up, but Ty Lee pushed her down again, her hand solid at the base of Mai's spine.
"I'm fine, really."
"No, you need rest. I'll ask Jia Lin to bring dinner up here."
"You don't have to nursemaid me," Mai grumbled, wishing she could sit up, at least.
"I know I don't have to," said Ty Lee. "But I want to." She dropped a quick kiss to Mai's temple and slipped out of the room.
Mai blinked in surprise. She and Ty Lee had been closer than ever of late, after deciding to leave their old lives behind and strike out on their own, but Mai still wasn't sure where they stood. They moved from town to town, never overstaying their welcome, but using their talents to deal with any persistent Fire Nation troublemakers. It was a useful way to spend their time, satisfying Mai's need both to make up for the things she had done on Azula's orders, as well as her need to keep a little excitement in her life. She suspected Ty Lee felt more or less the same.
Along the way, she'd finally admitted at least to herself that Ty Lee was the closest thing she had to a best friend, and Mai would do anything to stay by her side. Up to and including taking an arrow for her, as she'd discovered during one particularly hairy incident back when they were on Kyoshi Island. Since then, they'd travelled all over the Earth Kingdom, fighting rogue bands of firebenders who couldn't admit that the war was over, as well as tackling the occasional monster or malevolent spirit they happened across.
It wasn't a life Mai had ever imagined for herself, but it was a good one, and she was glad to have someone to share it with. She found herself taken aback sometimes by the way the sight of Ty Lee plaiting her hair or smiling with victory made something quiet and warm uncurl inside her.
Tonight, they would eat dinner together and talk about where they wanted to go next - Ty Lee would probably try to push for a holiday again, and Mai might even agree, much as she feared being bored out of her mind. She'd had more than enough of beaches, after all. They'd write letters to Zuko and to Suki, respectively, keeping them at least broadly informed of their whereabouts so that they could send any information they had on trouble in the Earth Kingdom.
One day, probably, they'd go home. But not yet.
Ty Lee pushed open the door, bearing a plate of food and a smile. Mai smelled the usual blend of Earth Kingdom herbs and spices that she'd grown to like far more than she thought she would. Ty Lee helped her sit up, creating a mountain of pillows for her to lean on before serving dinner. She put the tray down on the bed, setting out two bowls and serving out rice and fish and fresh vegetables, and was probably close to trying to spoon-feed Mai before Mai insisted that no, really, this bit she could do.
It was ... nice. Mai felt close to a smile, but it was probably best not to get too carried away. They drank tea and made fun of the pomposity of the Ozai loyalists they'd taken down earlier. Contentment wasn't a feeling Mai was all that used to, but as it turned out, she liked it.
"You look happy!" Ty Lee said, surprised. "I didn't think serious injury would put you in such a good mood."
"Well, enjoy it while it lasts, I'll be bored to tears if I have to stay in bed tomorrow."
"Don't worry, I'll stay here and keep you entertained. It'll be fun!" Ty Lee grinned.
Mai arched an eyebrow. "Oh? That a promise?"
Ty Lee's whole face flushed. "Oh no, I didn't mean, not like that -- just keeping you company, you know --" She cut herself off, looking at Mai with a little embarrassment, a little uncertainty, and a little bit of a hopeful question.
"Ty Lee." Mai leaned forward, suppressing a wince as her shoulder moved in a way it wasn't happy with. She held Ty Lee's hand in hers. "I should say thank you, for watching my back. Literally, in this case."
"You're welcome." Ty Lee looked down at their entwined hands, then back up at Mai. "I couldn't stand it if anything happened to you, I just couldn't."
"Yeah," Mai said softly. "Same."
They both went quiet at that.
Then Ty Lee was leaning close, laughing a little, her hands warm on Mai's face. The uncertainty in Ty Lee's face was still there, but gradually changing into confidence.
"Is this okay?" she asked, still needing to be certain.
"Yes," Mai assured her.
"In that case." Ty Lee's whole face lit up, and she kissed Mai.
The kiss was light and over almost before it started. Ty Lee drew back, nervously tangling her fingers in one braid, and Mai reached out to tuck some stray strands of hair behind her ear, pressing a kiss to her cheek as she did so.
She wanted to draw Ty Lee close and express all the things she wasn't good at putting into words, but she was tired and in pain and it would have to wait.
"Thank you," she said again instead, a little pathetically.
"Any time. Seriously." And Ty Lee started laughing for real, giggles that made her double over on the bed and infectious enough that Mai was laughing a little too, though careful not to move too much. Ty Lee picked up her chopsticks and stole a water chestnut from Mai's bowl. "And you really need to rest," she continued, with the same regret that Mai felt.
"I'm not going anywhere," Mai pointed out, squeezing Ty Lee's hand.