Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
—Robert Frost, Fire and Ice
The cell is small and crowded, even with only two in it. Typical, as cells go, really, and normally, Mai wouldn’t be fazed, but she’s usually the one watching from outside, and it’s only now that she’s discovering that the inside is extremely unpleasant and uncomfortable.
They could have done worse, though. Much, much worse. They could have lost the candles and books, for one, and (Mai shudders) she and Ty Lee could have been separated. Thank Agni her uncle still has some sort of influence around here.
Or at least, that’s what Mai thinks as she lies sprawled across the hard bed, staring at the grey ceiling—mostly so that she doesn’t have to notice Ty Lee, curled into herself and shaking.
Mai wonders if that’s what Zuko’s doing right now. She wonders if he’s alive, even.
But no—that thought’s pushed quickly to the back of her head. He’s alive and off doing spirits knows what with the Avatar. He has to be.
She’s worried, and she’s deathly afraid, of course, for themselves (but mostly Ty Lee) and for him, but she has to hold it together. She has to survive this place and get the two of them out.
Somehow, she will.
The first days pass quicker than Mai’d thought they would. It’s easier to pull through when something cold and dreadful is burning inside you, when hope still exists.
But as days turn into weeks, the flame slowly burns down.
No one comes to visit them, unless you count the guards who give them food and water, and who escort them outside for an hour each day.
(Not while the other prisoners are there, of course, because Mai and Ty Lee have been ordered into complete isolation.
Azula really does know how to hold a grudge.)
Mai watches the steam billow against the tiny window of their cell, and tries to find a star outside. She’s never really cared for stars before, didn't understand the point, but desperation does things to people.
Ty Lee’s still not talking to anyone, her lips pressed tight and her face thin and jagged, lines creased into it, and the stone in Mai’s stomach grows.
Every night, Mai watches for the stars, and watches Ty Lee.
Nothing ever changes.
Her uncle comes to visit, just the once.
He’s not Warden anymore, but Deputy Wardens still generally get what they want, and so he comes to visit.
“You brought this upon yourself,” he should say, and, “You’ve always been selfish”, and, “You destroyed our family.”
He doesn’t, though. He sits and stares at her for the longest time. Doesn’t touch her, embrace her or even push her away, just looks. His eyes are indecipherable, two brown, solid, impenetrable spheres. After what feels like eternity, the chair scrapes against the floor, and he gets up. Walks to the door. Opens his mouth to announce that he’s done here.
The muscled hand on the door shakes, and his eyelashes tip down for a moment. Then he turns back.
“I love you, you know,” he says.
Then he calls out, and the door opens, and he’s gone.
The only time Ty Lee speaks is in her sleep. The only word Ty Lee speaks is “Azula”.
Mai watches her, watches her toss and turn and cry out, and she wonders what Azula is feeling right now (because she’s her friend, too, even though Azula seems to think otherwise).
Mai knows what Azula’s feeling.
(Zuko’s eye trembles, and wavers, and then it’s gone).
Mai knows exactly what Azula’s feeling.
(That doesn’t mean she’s going to forgive her.)
Mai hears things, at night. Hears footsteps, voices, laughter even, sometimes.
It’s not real. She knows it’s not real.
Because Zuko’s voice is among those her ears catch, even as she pulls her pillow over her head in an attempt to drown it out, joyful and glorious for once, with his friends, no expectations that he can’t fulfill hanging over his head.
Because Azula doesn’t scream when she’s with those those voices, she’s happy and laughing, and she’s carefree in a way Mai’s never known her to be, the burdens on her shoulders gone.
It’s not true, and Mai doesn’t listen, because she knows she shouldn’t. When you listen to the voices in your head, you go mad. It’s a known fact.
Mai’s halfway to mad already, and she doesn’t want to go the rest of the way, but the voices are alluring.
She pushes the thought away and concentrates on escaping. She won’t be stuck here for ever.
Blood is thicker than water.
It’s a peasant saying, and Mai won’t admit to knowing it, but there might be a grain of truth in it. After all, the bloody red crescents etched into her palms where her fingernails had dug in won’t disappear no matter how many times she holds them under the water.
Always, like a curse, they come back.
Ty Lee’s scratching at her bedspread, staring blankly at the walls. She’s not crying. Since that first, awful night, she’s never cried.
Mai hates Zuko.
Ty Lee loved Azula, and look what it did to her. Mai won’t give herself that, won’t give Zuko that.
It’s different, she hopes(knows), on the other side, when you’re the betrayer, you’re the one whose eyes are wavering and closing off. It’s easier when you’re doing the right thing (except it’s not, the half-moons on her palm bear testament to the ugly truth).
She hates Zuko with as much hate as she can muster, and she hates Azula with as much hate as she can muster. It’s not much, it’s not nearly enough, and she doesn’t scream, she never screams, but she clutches the bars and her palms and stares at the steam (no looking for stars, not anymore) and listens to Ty Lee’s awful, blank sounds and wishes, wishes she could help her, but she can’t, because she’s helpless.
Blood can't be thicker than water, or Zuko and Azula wouldn’t hurt the same. Ty Lee wouldn’t hurt the same.
Nothing would hurt at all.
It must be a hallucination, because there’s no way that Azula’s standing in their cell, no way at all.
“I hate you,” Hallucination Azula tells Mai and Ty Lee. “I hate you.” And that does sound like real Azula, but then, it would, wouldn’t it? Because Mai knows Azula.
Except, Ty Lee’s speaking too, and that—
That may or may not be a hallucination as well.
“I don’t,” Hallucination Ty Lee’s saying. “I don’t hate you.”
Hallucination Azula screams, once, long and loud, and the table catches fire. “You have no right to say that!” she spits. Then she turns on Mai. “You! So—so irritating, you feel nothing, do you, you numb block, you just thought it’d be fun to turn on me, because you were bored!”
Mai blinks. She’s only a hallucination. It doesn’t matter.
Hallucination Ty Lee reaches out for Hallucination Azula. “Don’t, Azula, you’re just hurting yourself.”
Hallucination Azula flinches back. “You’re just like her, dammit. Ty Lee, stop.”
“I won’t!” Hallucination Ty Lee snaps, and then she’s sweeping Azula in for a kiss, and Hallucination Azula grabs her, and they’re both pushing and pulling—
And the sounds are suddenly all too real. It’s not a hallucination.
Mai turns away. From shock, yes, but also to give them some privacy, because she’s not completely heartless.
The sounds stop soon, though, and it’s Azula’s voice again, shrill and high. “Won’t even look at me, Mai? Don’t you care?”
Mai presses her lips together, refuses to respond. You hate Azula, she tells herself, you hate Azula.
Azula spits, again, and this time the glob lands on Mai’s face. “Fuck you too, both of you! Fuck you.”
And the door slams, and she’s gone.
The next morning, the table’s still charred, and Ty Lee’s still speaking.
“We need to escape,” she says, the moment Mai opens her eyes.
“Ty Lee?” Mai blinks, confused for a moment, before the events of last night rush in again.
“Tomorrow’s the Comet, we need to get out before that, Azula’s crazy.” Ty Lee’s speaking matter-of-factly, and there’s no tremble in her lips, even.
Mai wonders what changed.
No, actually, she knows what changed.
“OK,” she says, “But I have been trying to think of a plan...and no luck so far.”
They don’t have any luck that day, either, because the guards pull them out of their cell and bundle them into an airship.
Headed straight to the Fire Lord’s court.
They can see the courtyard from their cell.
They see it all, that day, the explosion of blue and yellow, and they clutch each other, hearts thumping in their chests, as they watch the colours dance and rage against each other, in a dance that seems to go on forever.
One over another, and Mai knows she’s made her choice, but it’s hard, too hard, for her, and for Ty Lee, and for them, too, she thinks, because whatever anyone might say, Zuko and Azula loved each other, in the beginning.
Mai knows this. She was there.
And she knows, too, that betrayal turned that love to hate, and she knows what hate can do, and so she knows what’s going to happen. The drama will unfurl, and end in tragedy. She’s seen the plays, and she knows there’s no other way this will end.
Zuko or Azula. Azula or Zuko.
Not both of them. Just one.
Except it is both of them, in the end, Zuko on the ground, Azula chained to the gutter, both of them down, down, down, destroyed.
It’s not fair.
And maybe Zuko’s alive, and maybe Azula’s not quite gone, but—
They were still both dead for a moment, and neither she nor Ty Lee will ever be the same again.
Mai thought they’d get out of the cell as soon as the war ended.
She’s wrong. They’re apparently not important enough for Zuko to search them out immediately. Or maybe Azula simply didn’t tell anyone where she’d put them. Both answers make her insides twinge, and she considers moping.
“They’ll find us, Mai,” Ty Lee says, and her old optimism is back already. Mai doesn’t understand, doesn’t think she ever will.
“I don’t think they will.” Mai knows her voice sounds flat, but then, it always has.
Except—Azula’s in prison. Zuko’s still not allowed to move from his bed.
That’s what the Water Tribe boy, the Avatar’s friend, S-something, says, anyway, when he comes and gets them out more than two days later, his leg in a splint, and he’d probably know.
Ty Lee perks up, at least, when he clangs open the door—she’s always had a bit of a soft spot for him, and now, she dances up to him (where does she get the energy? Sure, they’ve had water in the cell, and enough food to last a day, but that’s still a day without food, which, ugh) and kisses him on the cheek. “Sokka! Nice to see you, handsome!”
The Water Tribe boy blushes, and rubs the hand that’s not clutching some sort of weapon Mai can’t see tightly over his cheek. “Um—nice to see you too, I guess? Please don’t kill me? And, uh, I—I have a girlfriend, though, and she’s scary, so no kissing, please?”
“I have a scary girlfriend too,” Ty Lee assures him.
Or you did, anyway, Mai thinks, and knows that Ty Lee’s thinking the same.
It’s not a thought that should be spoken aloud. Neither of them need the ringing finality of words right now.
Mai kisses Zuko. It’s easy. It should be.
His lips are rough and chapped on hers, fitting just right as if they were meant to be.
In her arms, Zuko trembles, and Mai’d like to think it’s because of her sexual prowess (hah), but it’s more likely that his wound’s hurting him again. Although hurting doesn’t seem like a strong enough word for what he must be feeling right now.
He’s got to pull through an entire ceremony like that. Mai doesn’t doubt he will. He took a bolt of lightning and lived, he can stand for a few hours on shaky legs and ignore the pain.
That knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to push him away, though it probably should.
She rests her head on his shoulder for a minute, prolonging the moment, her head turned to watch the people bustling outside.
Ty Lee’s out there, somewhere in the crowd. Mai tries to ignore the guilt bubbling in the pit of her stomach. Ty Lee will move on. Mai believes she will. She has to.
Azula’s not here. Zuko is. And Zuko won’t use her like Azula did. Ever.
(She banishes the image of the one, wavering eye and she banishes the image of the table on fire, and turns back to Zuko.
Her choice was made long ago. Now she just has to learn to live with it.)
Ty Lee joins the Kyoshi Warriors. Mai joins Zuko.
She’s right. It’s never the same again.
And the stories are all right. Love hurts and destroys and takes and takes, and gives nothing in return.
Mai loves Azula. Mai loves Zuko. Mai loves Ty Lee. Mai loves her uncle.
In the end, all of them disappear.