Chapter 1: Sleepover
Unlike most people who visited the Fire Nation's Royal Palace, Mai was not required to buy a ticket. The guards waved her through the service entrance without even asking to see her authorization. Azula had a servant telephone her to come over often enough that her face merited no curiosity.
Inside, the household staff conducted themselves with stoic professionalism. Maids glided silently through the perfumed halls. Servants went about cleaning and polishing the palace's trove of national treasures. Guards in gold trimmed red-and-black spiky armor patrolled the halls, possibly on high alert for wayward Earth Kingdom tourists looking for a bathroom. Mai ignored them all just as she did the palace's ostentatious splendor. Both were only meant for show.
A deaf-mute servant from the royal household staff was waiting outside Azula's private study. She bowed deeply, then opened the door.
"Ah! You're early. Please, sit. The tea is almost ready."
The door closed and locked behind Mai.
"My nephew tells me you enjoy Kuding tea. Not the most popular drink outside the healing houses, but I think it shows a strong sense of character to appreciate such bitterness. Please stand up."
Mai peeled herself off the floor. She might not have been a monarchist like Uncle, but she knew when to kowtow. "Your Majesty, this one is humbled by such an unexpected delight.
The Fire Lord laughed from his belly. "Your mother taught you well, Lady Mai, but I do not think your rank demands such utter submission."
She sat in a chair. "I am not a noblewoman, Your Majesty."
"You are the budding flower of womanhood. That makes you a lady in my book." He flashed her a smile that Mai assumed must have been charming to a different sort of woman fifty years ago. "Besides, I hardly think your parents raised you to believe in the excesses of republicanism."
This was true, but it was also not a tactful line of conversation to pursue. The Fire Lord thankfully changed topics. "I understand you have been blessed with a baby brother."
As they made brainless small talk about Tom-Tom, the Fire Lord took handleless teacups into his hands and began warming them with his firebending. For a man who poked fun at egalitarianism, he had an unsettling way of reversing the standards of decorum. Not that she could ever impress a tea master with her own presentation ability.
At least the tea smelled excellent.
Iroh filled up the opposite side of the desk. His grey hair was pulled up in an old-fashioned top-knot, boasting the five pronged headpiece of the Fire Lord. It seemed oddly natural on him, not like how Zuko and Azula were self-conscious of the headpieces they donned for state functions. The image of dignified royalty, however, took a mortal blow from the sight of Fire Lord Iroh fussing over his tea set like a perfectionist maid.
Although perfect is what the tea turned out to be: sharply bitter, followed by a hint of sweet, medicinal coolness on her tongue. Mai could not remember a better cup, even if the Fire Lord winced at his own brew.
"Bracing," he choked out.
Afterwards, they set their teacups aside.
"Now," Iroh began, "I'm sure you're wondering why I deceived you. I won't keep you in suspense any longer, Lady Mai. The crown has a request of you." He offered up his palms. "And this is going to sound really strange, so please do not throw one of your knives at me. I am just an old man and my reflexes are slow."
Mai very much doubted that last part.
"I want you to summer with my nephew on Ember Island."
The Fire Lord smiled again, this time too widely. Sweat beaded his forehead. "Prince Zuko and a representative from the Earth Kingdom will be helping to train a special student, and the politics involved are vital to the Fire Nation's reunification."
"You see, the Avatar has returned."
She stared at the Fire Lord, waiting to see if he was telling another joke, but he didn't have a good straight face. "Which Water Tribe is the Avatar from?"
"Neither. It is the lost airbender. Before you ask, Avatar Aang is still only sixteen. It is very complicated."
Mai filed that away for later. There was a more pressing, mundane issue to deal with. "I'm guessing my father already volunteered me for this, since he's not here and you're not Azula."
The Fire Lord's smile was pleasant, self-assured, and utterly unrevealing of whatever he might have been thinking. Mai was struck by the thought that this is what she probably would have been raised to act like if she had been born a boy, and what Tom-Tom would look like in his old age.
Iroh said, "I'm meeting with you because I want to give you a choice in the matter."
"So you wanted to waste both our time."
"Good tea is never a waste, Lady Mai."
On that note, he refilled their cups.
She asked, "So why Zuko?"
"Avatars can live for a long time. Their friendship is a greater prize than any jewel, one that be inherited by Zuko's children after he becomes Fire Lord. Any noble can be elected Grand Secretariat, but the position isn't hereditary. The royal family can provide that service to the state."
Which made a certain amount of sense if you were a monarchist, which Mai wasn't, so long as Zuko didn't ostracize himself from high society like Lu Ten had. Mai let the topic drop. It had been settled before she had even stepped into the room. "You think this new Avatar will really help the Fire Nation?"
"He is the only one who can," the Fire Lord replied. "No matter what the militarists think, we will never possess sufficient force of arms to retake all the islands the Earth Kingdom expelled us from. Only the Avatar can restore balance to the world."
"And you both want me to... what? Convince the Avatar of the righteousness of our cause?" Wonder of wonders, she managed to say that without throwing up a little in her mouth.
Iroh rested clasped hands on his belly. "No. The Grand Secretariat and I have an even more essential task for you to complete."
"We want you to make some friends."
* * *
"Wooo! Road trip!"
"Sokka, get off the bison."
"Aang, buddy, you gotta relax. In a few days it's going to be sandy beaches, skimpy swimsuits, and all the free meat a royal chef can prepare. Nothing could possibly go wrong!"
"That may be true, but your luggage isn't packing itself."
"Eh, you do mine, I'll do yours."
"I don't believe in worldly goods, Sokka."
"You should really try. They're a lot of fun."
"Well, while you're busy with Appa, I'm going to go keep Katara company. Maybe get in a little private practice. Y'know, waterbending like waterbenders do."
"You know what's also fun to try, Aang?"
* * *
Unlike the previous night's feast, which Sokka still pleasantly enjoyed in his full stomach, their final send-off was private. It took place in a snowfield east of their grandmother's village, early enough that most everyone was still asleep.
Mom might have said something when she hugged him goodbye, but it was mostly lost in her tears. Sokka felt vaguely unmanly about the whole thing. He let it slide. For his Mom's sake.
Gran-Gran was more prosaic. "Don't get any girls in a family way, grandson."
"Kanna!" Mom said.
"That goes the same for you, Avatar."
Aang rubbed his head sheepishly. "Wouldn't think of it, Gran-Gran."
The look she shot him said everything there was to say about what Gran-Gran thought of young men off adventuring. Sokka had to admit he'd had a few thoughts of his own along those lines since Aang asked him to go along. This adventure would be his last chance for fun for a long time. Come autumn, it was off to the Naval Academy.
"Don't forget to write," Katara said, hugging him. "And make sure Aang doesn't skip practicing his waterbending forms. Just because he's the Avatar doesn't mean he gets to stop exercising."
"Don't worry. I'll keep the airhead in line."
Aang cleared his throat. "Good luck performing at the New Moon Celebration, Katara. I wish I could be there, but I'm sure you'll do great."
Katara blushed. "Thanks."
The monk and his sister suddenly found other things to look at when the silence between them stretched out. The whole thing gave Sokka the oogies. Bad enough that he'd walked in on them kissing, but at least it was over once they'd broken up a few weeks later. Or so he had thought.
Aang, he decided, needed a new girlfriend, fast.
"Have fun, Sokka," Dad said, thankfully breaking the tension, "and remember to make your family proud."
Chapter 2: Road Trip
"Remember not to bring shame upon your family." As the chauffeur brought the motor-carriage around to the front gate, Mother raised her voice to be heard over the chuffing of its steam engine. "This honor is a great opportunity!"
"Yeah, to work on my sunburn."
Mother shot her a look. Mai didn't mind it. She slept with sharper things in her hair. Besides, it wasn't like Mother could lecture her too much in public. As far as polite society knew, she was summering at her family's estate on Kohl Atoll to study for her autumn university examination. Just as Zuko was spending the summer on Ember Island refining his firebending and swordsmanship as idle royalty did.
Of course, knowing her parents, there was another goal involved with spending time with Zuko. Why settle for grooming Mai to inherit her family's seat in the Peer Assembly and possibly being elected Grand Secretariat herself one day, with Tom-Tom around to free up her options?
"It means more than that, Mai."
"Whatever." She shuffled toward the motor-carriage, offering her mother a half-hearted backwards wave.
* * *
The drive out of Caldera City was, as always, hellish on her tailbone. The paving slabs that composed the old capital's streets had not been laid with the use of fast-moving vehicles in mind, and every bump and uneven surface was magnified as the motor-carriage steamed along. The winding trail down the mountainside to Harbor City was little better. Mai didn't know why modern amenities were not appreciated in tourists traps, but 'historical value' was a poor excuse.
Mai's backside was numb by the time they reached the mountain's foot. Perhaps the chauffeur was smart enough to sense her displeasure, as he sped up to the blistering fourteen mile per hour speed limit once they hit level, modern road.
The early hour meant they had the streets all to themselves. Their destination was a small steamship in the harbor district, perfect for island hopping. As they parked near another vehicle on the peer, Zuko came out to greet her.
"Good morning," he said, offering her his hand. She took it and stepped down from her perch. "Did you eat yet? I packed some food for the trip."
"Ugh. Not unless you want me gagging the whole way." Mai nodded toward the second motor-carriage. "Where's your driver?"
"I drove myself. Palanquins aren't exactly subtle. Someone will come around later to take it back to the palace."
Mai had stopped caring sixteen words ago, but she made a 'hmm' sound anyway. That sort of thing was good for letting people think what they had just said mattered to you.
"You can go," she told her chauffeur.
He bowed and drove off.
Moving back abroad the yacht, Zuko jokingly asked, "How long before you think he starts spreading rumors about us eloping?"
"Not long," she said. "The help seeing us leaving together is probably why the Fire Lord didn't have you drive me to docks. It makes a good cover story."
"What? No, that's-"
"If even I didn't know you could drive, who else would?"
Zuko said nothing more as he returned to working the boiler with his firebending. Mai let him be. It was his own fault, really. Nothing about this was going to be simple. They were pai-sho tiles being moved on a board. That was probably why Azula hadn't been picked to be the Avatar's firebending sifu. Aside from being terrible with people, who wanted a game piece that thought for itself?
She and Zuko were the safe bets; known quantities who behaved in predictably useful ways, with all the reasons in the world to willing play out the Fire Lord's strategy.
Well, there was nothing to do about it. The only option was to stick to the script unless necessary and enjoy what perks there were along the way.
Wait, they had banned motor-carriages on Ember Island, hadn't they? For disturbing the public peace.
Mai almost smiled.
* * *
After the Avatar's surprise return, Mai learned from Zuko during the idle hours of their sea voyage, that negotiations between the Earth King and Fire Nation's leadership had begun almost at once. The long, cold "ceasefire" between their nations wasn't suited to a world where there was a higher authority to answer to.
Worse still, Roku's War was no history lesson to Avatar Aang. He had grown up bearing witness to each side giving their all to annihilate the other; a time when the Fire Nation was still the invader and not the invaded. There was no guessing who the Avatar would side with in the end. Not unless some groundwork was laid first.
"Which is where we come in," Zuko explained.
After having it described to her in detail, Mai decided the finale agreement had all the signs of a compromise only a committee could love:
Each nation would request the Avatar take on their candidate as his bending instructor, to teach him in how their native art had evolved over the past century. While not fully realized, he had already mastered the four elements before he had frozen himself. Each instructor would be allowed one non-bender advisor. In exchange for Earth King Kuei's stipulation that the Air Nomads be brought in as impartial overseers of the 'friendship summit,' the Fire Nation was allowed to pick the summit's site.
"We're supposed to use a beach vacation to convince the Avatar to kick out the Earth Kingdom's colonists? Are you sure the only thing your uncle drinks is tea?"
"It's the honorable thing to do by our country, Mai."
Mai continued polishing her knives. "Isn't war supposed to be a glorious chance to honor our nation with the offering of our lives?"
"The last time we went to war, we lost everything east of Chung-Ling." He paused for too long a moment. "Do you want the Ty Lees of the world bleeding out on hundreds of beaches across the archipelago, because we failed? The comet is only a few months away, Mai."
She set down her rag. "Zuko, at worst the Avatar-"
"-will stand back like Roku, and let us destroy ourselves."
Chapter 3: Long Distance
Sokka chewed on some blubbered seal jerky, having earned it from yet another long day spent sitting. Free arm dangling over the side of Appa's saddle, he watched as far below yet another long train chugged along on the Earth Kingdom's westernmost transcontinental railroad. "So you'll be learning firebending from a prince, huh? I bet he'll be all high and mighty."
"Says the chieftain's son."
"You gotta earn the right to lead in the Southern Water Tribe, Aang, not have it handed to you like a piece of delicious meat." With that, Sokka popped another bit of jerky into his mouth. "I don't know how they did it a hundred years ago, but we're not the North."
"A lot of things aren't like they were a hundred years ago," Aang said, voice disembodied as they passed through a particularly thick cloud. "The Fire Lord doesn't even run his own country anymore."
"Yeah!" he said between chews. "Cuz he botched the last war so bad he lost half his country!"
"That never stops sounding weird. Before I got frozen, the Fire Nation had finally turned the tide against the Earth Kingdom." As they came back out into the sunlight, Aang shook his head. "You should have seen Omashu after the Great Comet passed. It was horrible."
Sokka shifted uncomfortably. He finished chewing and swallowed before speaking again. "That's what I've read. So forget the snobby firebending guy. What about that hoity-toity earthbender girl? I don't envy your summer, Aang."
"No need to be jealous, Sokka. I'm leaving all the Fire Nation girls for you."
"Ha. Ha. You're a riot." He stuck a finger in his mouth, dug out a bit of jerky jammed between his teeth, studied his prize, and then sucked it off his finger. "I'm just saying, everybody knows how Earth Kingdom girls are. Watch her be a delicate little flower."
"Or," Aang said hopefully, "maybe she'll be tough."
. . .
With their luggage shipped ahead of them for convenience's sake, she and Zuko had nothing to carry from the boat but the clothes on their backs. That, and a sun-umbrella Zuko had brought along for her.
"I remember how much you hate the sun."
She accepted it wordlessly. He eyed her red-tinged cheeks. She rolled her eyes. "It's sunburn, Zuko."
A pair of plainclothes royal guardsmen waited for them at the end of the dock, killing time with a card game, but managed to be completely useless by saluting.
"Be careful taking her out of the harbor," Zuko told them. "The rudder sticks a little to the left."
The midday sun was no kinder over Ember Island than it was back on the Fire Nation mainland, so there were few people lingering outside to notice the guardsmen outing them all. But, as Mother had long ago drilled into her, someone always noticed.
. . .
The beach house looked essentially as Mai remembered it from a few years back, when Azula had invited her and Ty Lee along for a long holiday. One of the princess's rewards for developing blue flames, and the start of a brief era where the princess's parents remembered Azula existed.
The new fire lily beds were tacky.
A dozen Air Nomads wearing saffron, orange, or red robes came out to greet them. An elderly airbender nun with the oddest haircut Mai had ever seen peeled off from the group. "Prince Zuko, Comrade Mai, welcome. My name is Jinju. I will be overseeing the household during this summit." She brought her palms together and nodded respectfully. Her underlings mimed the gesture.
Zuko returned the favor, but in the fist-supporting-palm style of the Fire Nation. "Thank you for your hospitality. Are the others waiting inside?"
"No. You're the first to arrive."
Mai breezed past him. "They didn't pave over the hot spring, right?"
"No," said Jinju.
"And do you have any fireflakes? I'm hungry."
. . .
Aang's maps had it listed by its pre-colonization name, Chung-Ling Island, the second largest island in the archipelago chain that used to be all Fire Nation. At least it was in the same place after a hundred years. No small virtue to Sokka after their last accidental detour.
They made landfall on the island at sunset and decided to push on to its capital. Regardless of its past or present name, their destination was hard to miss in the nighttime. If the spotlights from the palace weren't enough to guide them in, there was the giant freaking torch.
In the midst of the sprawling city outside the palace, a humungous fountain of fire blazed away in the night sky. An even humungous-er statue loomed over the fire fountain. When Aang flew them close enough past both for a good look, Sokka felt the raw heat soak into his exposed skin. Sokka didn't recognize the long-haired woman posed over the fire with her arms stretched out. He did, however, know the motto emblazoned on the pillar from which the flames spouted.
"Two in harmony surpasses one in perfection," Aang read aloud. "Huh."
"It's the Kingdom of Yu Dao's motto. They slap it on everything. See?" Sokka fumbled for with coin-purse. After he dug out the right silver piece, he tossed it to his friend.
Aang turned it over in his hand, fingering the coin's embossed square. "Where's the hole?"
"Where's the what?"
"Earth Kingdom coins have... well, I guess 'had'-"
An chorus of sirens cut him off.
One by one, the lights in the city went out.
. . .
Appa made it the palace in a flash, landing in its inner garden as instructed by the Earth King's last telegraph. A group of armed soldiers ran out to meet them.
An oddly dressed girl with red hair pushed her way through the palace guards. "Stand down! It's the Avatar!"
The guards lowered their weapons, instead turning wide eyes on Aang. Sokka decided he need to take a picture of that look before people got too used to Aang and stopped doing it.
"What's going on?" Aang demanded. "The whole city just went dark!"
"They're having an air raid drill."
Sokka said, "Pretending airships attack for practice."
"We were expecting you the day before yesterday," the girl explained, "and I guess the drill never got cancelled."
"Sorry about that," Aang said, hopping out of the saddle. "See, we got a little lost."
"Yeaaaah," Sokka drawled. "Who'd have thought century-old maps might possibly be out of date?"
"I told you, it's not my fault that river shifted! And it worked out great in the end. You got to meet your kin-"
"Those swamp hicks are not my cousins."
"-and I got some pointers on a whole new style of waterbending. Katara will love it."
"Don't even-! You did not just talk about putting the moves on my sister again."
"That happened once, and she put the moves on me."
The red-haired girl pointedly cleared her throat. "Avatar Aang," she began solemnly, "you honor us with your presence. On behalf of Yu Dao and her fellow confederated kingdoms, I welcome you in the name of the Earth King."
Sokka wondered how long she had practiced that little speech in front of a mirror. Probably not as long as it took to get that ridiculous make-up on right.
Aang bowed. "The honor is mine." When he rose, he thumbed back at Sokka. "Meet my friend, Sokka of the Water Tribe."
He hoped out of the saddle. "Hey-a."
"And this is Appa. Say hello, buddy!"
The girl said, "My name is Suki, Commander of the Kyoshi Warriors. I'll be acting as the princess's body guard on Ember Island."
Sokka stifled a laugh, which earned him a pointed look from Suki. But seriously. Whoever heard of women warriors from outside the Southern Water Tribe? Only Sokka's people were tough enough for the battlefield.
Wait. Had he just caused a diplomatic incident?
"I hardly need protection," said a new voice.
The guards turned and bowed, as did Suki if not as deeply. Sokka thanked his ancestors for the distraction, but then raised both eyebrows at the sight of the girl they had provided. He hardly expected a princess to bare any midriff or leg, let alone so much of it. What skin she did cover up was done with a mix of colors like her guards: green-and-gold tones atop red.
"Unlike the mainlanders, we expect our women to defend their own honor. Just as our Kyoshi sisters do." The princess glanced at Sokka, sizing him up, before looking back at Aang. The she put her hands together in some weirdo foreign gesture and bowed. "Avatar Aang, welcome to the Earth Kingdom of Yu Dao. I look forward to our earthbending lessons."
"The same, Princess Kori."
. . .
A ragged sigh escaped Mai's throat as she slipped neck deep into the hot spring. All the tenseness in her muscles melted away, and for the first time since waking up this morning she didn't have to concentrate on any boring stuff like the fate of the Fire Nation. Hot water and hotter fireflakes; was there anything better except a perfectly balanced new knife?
stomp stomp stomp stomp Stomp BANG!
Mai cracked an eyelid as the door to the hot spring was flung open, perhaps revealing an elite airbending assassin hoping to derail the summit. But it was only Zuko.
"The Avatar is up to something, Mai, I know it." He started to pace back and forth along the water's edge, still dressed in his travel clothes and with his boots on. Somewhere, Mai was sure, his etiquette and protocol teachers were weeping. "He knows how important this summit is, and he blows us off? When he's supposed to be bringing that colonial floozy-"
"Who says 'floozy'?"
"-here secretly. Never mind that this was arranged weeks ago, or that he knows what's at stake if no peace treaty is struck by summer's end."
Mai sank down so that only her nose was above the waterline. Maybe if she stayed still enough, he would not spot her in the steam veil.
A girl could dream.
"I don't like this first impression, Mai. He's making us wait on him. Maybe he doesn't respect the Fire Nation, or he doesn't want to seem biased in our favor like Avatar Roku."
Aaaaand Zuko turned to look right at her, expectant.
"It's obvious Avatar Aang is a daring political player," he declared, "but what's he trying to tell us?"
. . .
"I'm trying to tell you," Aang said, arms stretched wide, "the leech was THIS BIG."
The guests around the dinner table expressed varying signs of disbelief.
Sokka held up his elbow, showing off the big red mark on his skin. "He's not joking. I didn't even feel because of its evil leech venom." He suppressed an unmanly shudder at the memory of it. "I had to wrestle with the beast just to get it off."
"It must have been an epic struggle," Suki said, "suitable for song."
Princess Kori asked, "They don't have many leeches at the South Pole, do they?"
Sokka crossed his arms with a huff.
. . .
Raising her head out of the water, Mai said, "I think he's just running late and you're freaking out over nothing."
Zuko seized up, meaning the thought hadn't occurred to him, then grimaced. "But what if...?"
Mai sighed. Great. She had to massage Zuko's ego if she was ever going to get some alone time. At least she could tell off Azula now and again when the princess went overboard with her scheming and perfectionism, but giving Zuko a much needed kick was like punting a lamb-puppy.
"It doesn't matter either way, Zuko. He's the Avatar. 'All under heaven is guided by the divine medium who has descended upon the world,' remember?" she said, quoting Fragment 5 from the ancient Book of Symbols like a properly indoctrinated citizen. "If the perpetually reincarnating god-man wants to make us wait, we wait."
Zuko drew in a breath, held it... and froze up. Haltingly, he pointed to something at the side of the hot spring. "W...what are those?"
"My clothes," Mai answered.
"My wrappings, yes."
Zuko's gold eyes darted over to her, staring into the steam-covered water. She raised a hand out of the water and pointed to her face. "Eyes up here."
He twisted away, covering his eyes. "Mai! You're a pervert!"
"You're the one who stormed in here, Zuko."
He hustled out. "Lock the door next time!"
"There isn't a-"
Tipping the last of the fire flakes from the bowl into her mouth, Mai settled back in to resume enjoying a drama-free soak.
Chapter 4: Dance
The next morning at breakfast, Zuko was in no better mood, although perhaps that was because their Air Nomad staff tried to pass off street vendor food as their own. She and her friends had slummed enough in Harbor City that Mai could recognize the attempt to cover up subpar meat with over-spicing. You would have thought the airbender's theocracy could have at least hired a dissident that handled meat, but no. Mai would have to be careful eating this summer lest she end with more curves than Ty Lee.
The prince chewed sullenly on his baozi, eyeing the clock.
Mai let him stew. She returned to her bedroom, considered some target practice with her knives, but decided she felt too gross from the stone weighing down her stomach. Instead, just for laughs Mai settled for reading the latest garbage romance novel Ty Lee had mailed her.
A female firebender cross-dressed in order to take her ailing father's place after he was conscripted, only to be horrified as she slowly learned the imperialist truth behind the war that 'began' with Roku's death. She fell in love with a treaty-port colonial, who covertly educated her in the virtues of republicanism, but there was endless stupidity and misunderstanding because she was pretending to be a he and he was hiding the earthbending he inherited from his Earth Kingdomer mother. Only their blossoming love was thwarted by their commanding officer, a crackling nobleman, using the colonial peasantry as fodder against Ba Sing Se's armies when it finally entered the war.
In short, pretty cliché pacifist schlock. Mai was yawning through the part where the heroine's lover died in a futile charge when Zuko knocked on her bedroom door.
"They're here," he said.
. . .
"We're here!" Aang said.
Sokka glanced over the rim of the saddle at the green island spread out below. The clear waters glistened in the sunlight, and Sokka could see schools of fish swimming off-shore. Hundreds of little dots milled about on the beaches, going about their human lives.
Suki tore herself away from the saddle's edge. "That's all you have to say?"
"You've seen one tropical island from the air, you've seen 'em all."
"This is my first time flying."
"There you go," he said.
Princess Kori never stopped staring at the landscape as Aang brought Appa down for a landing on the beach. "This is the first time I've ever visited the Fire Nation. I've never even been out of the Earth Kingdom before."
"Me either," said Suki.
"Traveling is great!" Aang airbent himself off Appa, planting two feet in the sand. "You'd be amazed at what you learn about people when you get to know them."
"I don't need to get to know the Fire Nation," Princess Kori declared, climbing out of the saddle. "I already know what they want."
Sokka pulled off his shirt and incidentally flashed his biceps for the ladies to appreciate. "All this jib-jab is great, but I'm gonna hit the breach. Wouldn't want to get in the way of all the elbow rubbing."
"Have fun," said Aang. He gestured to the trail up to the beach house. "Shall we?"
. . .
Stiff from days in the saddle, Sokka decided to kick off his vacation by doing a little exercise. He had to keep his body in good shape for the ladies, after all. So he jogged a few laps up and down the beach. His third lap, Sokka tripped on a rock hidden just beneath the sand.
Miffed, Sokka kicked the loose rock out to sea. He was rewarded with a sickly snap. Sokka, leg still extended out in a kick, stopped dead and stared at the stubborn rock he had overturned in the sand.
Except it wasn't a rock.
. . .
A pair of airbenders showed in the Avatar and the colonial delegation. The entire household staff had turned out to greet them, joining her and Zuko.
Where exactly she and the prince physically stood in relation to one another was a tricky question of protocol, and a stupid one as well. Technically, Zuko outranked her as she hadn't inherited her father's peerage yet, and being the Grand Secretariat's daughter conferred no official rank. At the same time, her father was the head of government, and letting the future Fire Lord take the lead in non-ceremonial matters went against the whole reason her ancestors had deposed Sozin.
So Mai stood silently beside Zuko, and passed the time by sizing up the foreigners.
The half-breed puppet princess looked confident enough, and she was showing off enough skin to telegraph the fact she exercised regularly. The clown moved with a polished economy of motion, but her layered getup was ludicrously impractical for the tropics. The Avatar was depressingly ordinary for the World Spirit incarnate, if rather tall. Oh well.
"Comrade Mai. Prince Zuko." The Avatar offered a Fire Nation style greeting, bowing respectfully.
Zuko eased a little at the respectful gesture. He returned the greeting. "Avatar Aang, it is an honor."
"You can just call me Aang." He gestured to the pair of young women standing beside him. "This is Commander Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors," he gestured to the clown, and Mai almost rolled her eyes at the oh-so-subtle jab from the Earth Kingdom the Avatar Kyoshi stand-in represented, "and Princess Kori Morishita of Yu Dao."
Mai said, "Hello-"
Zuko jumped in, "Would that be the Kingdom of Yu Dao, or the Earth colony of Yu Dao?"
The Avatar hesitated. "Um-"
"Kingdom," Kori snapped. "Sovereign and eternal."
The princess and prince glared at one another.
. . .
Heart pounding, Sokka eyed the ceaseless surf and looming cliffs, as if a bloodthirsty polar bear-dog lurked just out of the corner of his eye. But no one attacked him.
Quickly, Sokka started digging out the human hand he had found.
The hand belonged to an arm, and the arm a body. The flesh was bloodless, clay-like, and beginning to swell with bloat. Another nude body lay shoulder-to-shoulder with it. Frantically digging away the sand, he found a third body, a fourth...
Sokka had no idea how long they had been dead, or how many more lay hidden under the sand. The heat of the tropics was so different from the freeze of home. But there was one inescapably important fact he sure about:
All the corpses were tattooed with blue arrows.
. . .
"If I might interrupt," Sister Jinju said. Zuko and the colonial girl broke from their staring contest. "We've prepared refreshments inside for everyone, lychee wine imported all the way from the Southern Air Temple. A gift for our peacemaker guests."
The Avatar smiled. "I haven't had a glass of lychee wine in what feels like a hundred years." Mai supposed they were supposed to laugh at that dumb joke, but no one did. The Avatar's smile grew forced.
Zuko pulled himself together and finally managed to be an adult. "The Fire Nation is honored by the Air Nomads' gift."
"As is the Earth Kingdom," Princess Kori piped up.
The trio of Important People walked inside. Mai followed but hung back, ignoring the feel of the clown's curious eyes on her. The rest of the Air Nomads were waiting in the dining room, ready with lychee wine on the rocks. A stiff drink sounded fantastic right then.
Once everyone had their servings, Mai picked up Zuko's slack when it came to playing the adult. "Avatar, if you would lead our nations in a toast..."
"An excellent idea, Comrade Mai," said Sister Jinju. "Everyone should drink at once."
The Avatar raised his golden goblet. "To peace and-"
Mai, bored, had let her eyes wander. It was pure chance that, as she looked out at the garden beyond the dinning room's awning windows, Mai noticed the blur of the inbound weapon.
"-ACK!" the Avatar shouted, stumbling back in shock as the goblet was knocked out of his hand, staining his saffron robe with lychee wine.
Everyone turned as one, following the weapon as it somehow curved back and planted itself in the hand of...
...some shirtless Water Tribe boy?
"AANG!" the stranger shouted. "THEY'RE IMPOSTORS! THEY KILLED THE REAL AIR NOMADS!"
The airbender behind Mai muttered 'oh shit' under his breath. It managed to boom like thunder in the otherwise perfectly silent dining room. For an instant, everyone was perfectly still.
And then the killing started.
. . .
Sokka loved the movies. What man with saltwater in their veins didn't? Every time the movie theater in town brought in the latest serial starring Master Piandao, their parents let him and Katara go see it on opening day. (Why they were so eager to get him and Katara out of the house for a few hours, Sokka wasn't sure.) The movies had everything you could want in a story: action, adventure, drama, comedy, exotic foreign backdrops, and even romance. That last bit was something he scoffed at in Katara's presence, but would never admit to secretly enjoying. Who didn't want to save the day and get the girl like Master Piandao? That was half the reason Sokka had taken up studying the jian.
Except in the serials, when Master Piandao dueled with evil spirits and ancient masters, fighting was like a fun dance. Sokka knew enough to recognize that the fighters were pulling their swings, but it was still entertaining. You could get lost in the story being played out silently onscreen.
Real fighting was not so much fun.
Sokka ran toward the windows of the dining room, jian in hand, but had to throw himself into a bed of fire lilies when a blast of lightning took out half the exterior wall. Heart pounding against his rib cage, Sokka looked up for a good opening. Instead, he found a not-Nomad woman stumbling out of the smoke, clutching the burnt ruin of her face. The left side of her body was peppered with large wooden splinters and the hem of her robe was on fire.
Forcing himself to stand on jelly legs, Sokka moved past her and ducked into the smoke.
. . .
Mai dove for the corner at the end of the smoke-filled hallway, narrowly avoiding the fireballs blasted at where her back would have been. The clown wasn't so lucky. She turned and deflected one fireball with her tacky little war fan, but caught a follow-up in her armored chest. She might have been fireproofed, but the kinetic force still kicked like a donkey-horse.
The blast threw the clown against the wall. She crumpled to the ground.
"That's one," said one of the assassins.
"No. She's still breathing."
Mai stared at the clown, hesitating.
. . .
Inside, Sokka found more smoke and confusion. Whatever room this had been moments before, now it was only splinters and fire. The ceiling sagged and groaned. A hole had been blown through an interior wall, and Sokka glimpsed Aang and some firebender dueling with a bunch of not-Nomads at close quarters. A few not-Nomads lay on the floor, unconscious or dead.
Of more immediate concern were the three not-Nomads trying to pin a thrashing, cursing Princess Kori to the ground. They were too busy to notice him standing there with his shiny jian.
Sokka darted forward and stabbed one in the throat.
The other not-Nomads reacted liked spooked polar bear-dogs, snapping upright. Sokka pulled his sword out of the first man, who clutched his bloody throat and toppled over onto Kori. Sokka turned and attacked the nearest not-Nomad, an old woman with greying hair. She fluidly dodged his nervous swipe and pushed her open palm at him.
Her airbending threw Sokka backwards.
. . .
Palming a knife, Mai sliced her own scalp open. The blood flowed plentifully as head wounds did, streaking her face. Now, how would Ty Lee play this part...?
Mai stepped around the corner with her hands held up in surrender. The two assassins had been approaching warily, expecting an assault from her direction, and her bloody, submissive appearance threw them off for a moment. Before they could recover, Mai attacked.
"STOP! STOP! I give up, okay? I don't know how much you people want but my parents can pay the ransom! My father is the Grand Secretariat, I swear! Whatever you want, he can get it for you, please just don't hurt me anymore!"
They relaxed, almost imperceptibly. Suckers.
"Okay. We won't hurt you," the assassin on the right said, despite the fact she had seen their faces. "Now get down on your knees and put your hands above you head."
"Oh thank you!" She settled down on her knees while taking hold of two small stilettos she had stuck in her thick hair a moment before turning the corner. "Thank you so much-"
Mai threw the knives.
"-for buying that."
The assassins hit the ground.
. . .
Aang had taught Sokka a few things about sparring with airbenders. With that training and a bit of luck, he managed to land on his feat, recovering fast enough to dodge the second air blast sent his way. Smoke and embers were stirred up in the air, and the roaring fire consuming the room gained new life. The rational, logical part of his brain screamed at him to get out of the room. The rest of him focused on the girl in trouble.
"You're not a fake?" he choked out, shocked.
The grandmotherly airbender smiled serenely. "This old master is exactly what she appears: one who strives for a world in balance."
The other remaining assassin, busying pining the princess with the aid of his fallen comrade's dead weight, shouted, "Sister, shut up and kill that Water f-"
The blood-soaked princess wiggled one arm of her captor's grip, groped blindly for his face, and put a thumb in one eye. He shrieked and fell off her.
The airbender watched this event blandly, then turned back to Sokka. "Another time, I think." She vanished into the smoke the way Sokka had come. A moment later, either by her hand or the inferno that was consuming the room, the whole exterior wall collapsed, spraying embers everywhere.
"We gotta get out of here!" Sokka rasped out to Princess Kori, the burning room's air harsh on his throat.
Dodging flames and falling timbers, they used the exit Aang and the firebender had made. The princess's blinded assassin was left in the burning house.
. . .
The clown had regained consciousness by the time Mai had hauled her into the open-air courtyard, walking with Mai's aid, but slurring her words when she spoke. Zuko and the Avatar were also there, kneeling over one of the assassins. Mai noted the foam leaking from the fake Air Nomad's lips. Suicide pill? No. No time in a fight. False tooth, probably.
"A lot of loyalty for hired thugs," she said.
Zuko startled, turned. Relief blossomed across his soot-stained face. Mai looked away, uncomfortable.
"Too much," Zuko declared.
"Aang! You're still alive!" A newcomer climbed through the demolished wall, picking his way through the rubble alongside the half-breed princess. It was the shirtless boy from before. "Sorry for staining your favorite robe."
The Avatar nodded warily but didn't speak.
"The pair that went after us aren't a problem," Mai said.
"We couldn't take any of them alive either," Zuko said.
"We know," the shirtless boy said. "We followed your trail of bodies. The old lady got away, though."
The Avatar asked, "And how'd you guess that our drinks were poisoned, Sokka?"
"Haven't you ever seen Burning of the Golden Temple Part XIII? The shogun did the exact same thing when he tried to assassinate Master Piandao."
Princess Kori, who was covered in too much blood for it to be her own, strode over to Zuko. "Is this the Fire Lord's idea of hospitality? Your uncle invites us into his house and the first thing that happens is his guests are almost murdered!"
"In case you didn't notice," Zuko said, "you are the only person they didn't try to kill outright. The Fire Nation had nothing to do with today."
"And you're saying the Earth Kingdom did?!" The ruined paving stones of the courtyard suggested the suicide was an earthbender, but firebenders had come after Mai.
Leaning against her, the clown groaned. Mai shared the sentiment, and said, "Maybe we should discuss this some place that isn't burning to the ground?"
Shirtless boy - Sokka, Mai reminded herself - added, "The old lady is probably gathering reinforcements."
"That happen in Burning of the Golden Temple too?" Zuko asked, in that dryly snide manner of his. Princess Kori's needling about the Fire Lord seemed to have gotten to him.
"Yeah actually," Sokka said, "but it's also what I'd do."
Mai couldn't argue with that reasoning.
Chapter 5: Intentions
Neither royal highness knew the first thing about foraging or what counted as decent firewood. Aang did, because of course living off the land was a big deal for nomadic folks, but he was busy keeping a concussed Suki company so she didn't fall asleep. The talents of royalty also did not extend to being sterling conversationalists; Prince Zuko and Princess Kori were content to brood silently and eye one another. Which in a way put them a step above... above...
"Say," Sokka began, as he piled another piece of firewood in the gloomy girl's arms, "I didn't catch your name before with all the killer pacifists and running away."
"I'm Sokka, by the way. Southern Water Tribe."
He sucked in a lungful of fresh mountain air. It brought back memories, even if the smells were different here in the Fire Nation. "Y'know, this reminds me of the Water Youth camping trips me and Katara - that's my sister - used to go on when I was a kid."
"Let's just get the firewood and go back to camp. You can share your incredibly boring childhood with everyone all at once." Mai shifted the load in her sleeved arms. "Why am I the one carrying this?"
"I'll carry it," Sokka said, "but then you'd have to be the one who picks up all the dirty stuff off the ground."
Mai considered that at length. Finally, she said, "Keep piling them on."
. . .
Princess Kori levitated stones from the heart of the raging campfire. Using her earthbending, she placed one in front of each person. The rocks glowed mildly and radiated comforting heat. Her chore done, she looked to the Avatar. "I think it's time to ask. What, exactly, are your intentions for us?"
The Avatar lowered his tea cup. "I thought that was obvious. Whoever those assassins were, they wanted the summit to fail. Which is why it's so important that we keep it going."
Kori said, "My loyalty to His Majesty is unwavering, but the summit was always going to fail. The assassins weren't the problem. It was that they even got a chance to strike at all."
Of course the campfire flared, because Zuko couldn't let a slight against his uncle go. "Says the one person," he spat, "they weren't trying to kill."
The princess clenched her fists. "Are you accusing me of something, Prince Zuko?"
The Water Tribe boy waved his arms. "Whoa. Wait. Back up, Zuko. Trust me, when I got there what they were doing with her was nothing good."
"That's Prince Zuko, peasant."
Mai raised an eyebrow, but the Southerner saved her the trouble of calling Zuko on his preening.
"Then I demand you address me properly as Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, Son of Hakoda and Kya." He stabbed a finger at the Avatar. "And don't forget what Aang's title is, 'cuz it beats prince."
"The Avatar's right," the clown said slowly. "You have to succeed, or the airbenders on the beach died for nothing."
That shut everyone up.
The fire cackled in the night, and something foul-tasting called dried seal jerky stewed in Mai's stomach. As she had for most of the day since their flight from Ember Island, Mai distantly wondered if there was something wrong with her for feeling apathetic about killing two people even in self-defense. Her uncle locked up people who thought like that, didn't he?
She pushed such useless contemplation aside. There were marginally less tedious matters to worry about. Breaking the silence, Mai asked, "Assuming a war hasn't started already, how is your stupid idea going to work?"
Everyone looked to the Avatar.
"Well," he began, scratching at his stubbly jawline, "I was thinking we move around from island to island, disguise ourselves. Make it hard for Jinju or anyone else to track us down. I brush up on the modern earthbending and firebending forms, and we work from there."
"And if a war has started?" Mai asked.
"Then we stop it," the Avatar answered with a bland matter-of-factness that Mai wasn't sure even she herself could top. "So first thing tomorrow morning, we find out if there is one."
. . .
'We' was a bit of a deliberate vagueness, as Sokka discovered.
They had made their camp on some nameless mountainside in the remote interior of Dragon's Breath Island, the large-ish map blob directly south of Ember Island. When it came time to poke their heads out of their hidey-hole, politics mucked things up again. Aang had to babysit the feuding royals, and Suki needed to rest. That left him or Mai to go. Since he didn't know the first thing about blending in with a bunch of ill-tempered foreigners and Kori had serious trust issues when it came to Fire Nationals, that left him and Mai to go.
"Listen," he told the gloomy girl once they had departed aboard Appa, "don't sweat this. I've got a plan for once we get there."
"Who's sweating?" Mai asked, slumped against the rim of the saddle with her arms crossed to keep warm.
They flew on in silence for a while.
And they flew a little further in silence as Mai refused to take his bait for conversation.
"So," he tried again, "you and Zuko."
"You're like his girlfriend or something?"
"That was a joke."
"I knew that," he said, smoothing out his shirt. "But seriously, what's up with you two? Suki's just a mucky-muck's bodyguard, and I'm here to keep Aang company, but Zuko keeps trying to set you on fire with all the smoldering glances he sends your way."
"Since a total stranger asked me a blunt question about my personal life, I guess I have no choice but to answer."
Then he twisted his head around. "Wait! Was that sarcasm?"
Bronze eyes narrowing, Mai stared back at him. "Are you trying to outdo me?"
Mai gave a very unladylike snort. "If you really want to know, officially I'm here with Zuko because our families run the country."
"I thought the Fire Lord didn't do squat."
"He doesn't, but the Peer Assembly needs to make its royal rubber stamp look good every once in a while."
"And the unofficial reason?"
"The Fire Lord wanted me to make friends."
Sokka stuck his nose up. "Fine! Don't answer."
"Seriously?" But if true, it was pretty telling about why the Fire Lord wasn't trusted with real power anymore. When the best the Fire Lord could muster for a charm offensive was Mai, he obviously wasn't trying very hard.
"I guess the old man figured a pretty girl bowing and scrapping would make the Avatar happy. Iroh's kind of a sexist," said Mai.
"I can tell you'd get along fine with each other."
"Hey now, don't get me wrong! I'm sure you're very attractive for a Fire Nation girl... lady... person. I just don't go for the whole, y'know," he gestured vaguely towards her, "pale and boney thing."
"You're a real credit to your people, Sokka."
. . .
"Are you tired of your country living under the tyranny of the Earth Kingdom?" the man with the megaphone asked the crowd milling the war memorial. "Then join the Phoenix Party! For too long, the capital's elites have kowtowed to the Earth King, accepting that our countrymen live as lower class citizens. Join Jeong-Jeong, and together we will tear down the Earth Kingdom colonies!"
Mai yawned. "No war, then."
The Water Tribe boy side-eyed her. It was eerie how he blended in simply by switching his clothes and wearing his hair down. Or maybe that was because he had managed to steal everything that wasn't nailed down at that laundry.
"If there was a war," she elaborated, "they'd be holding this rally in front of the recruitment office."
Peeling off the Phoenix Party rally, they walked toward the city's marketplace. There would be newsstands there, and with any luck one of them in this nowhere town would stock a paper from the capital.
. . .
It was an unorthodox hunting expedition, but a successful one. He and Gloomy Knife Nut returned to camp with a stack of newspapers. The headlines were all variations on the same story:
THE AVATAR RETURNS
WORLD REJOICES AT AVATAR'S RETURN
ICE TO MEET YOU, AVATAR AANG
"I like the last one," Aang said.
Mai rolled her eyes. "It's The Daily Dragon. They're all about cheesy headlines."
Sokka said, "Check out Page 5."
HOT TIME AT FIRE LORD'S SUMMER HOME
None injured as electrical fire ravages palatial estate.
"I know," Mai said. "Since when did that musty old shack count as palatial?"
Suki, whose health had forced her to stay sitting, scanned the article about Ember Island. "This says Prince Zuko hadn't arrived for his studies yet."
"It's a good sign," the prince declared. "They're not lighting off any public fireworks. Our governments must have leaked the Avatar's return as a way to distract attention from the attack."
"Or," Sokka said, "whoever tried to kill us did it so everybody and their dog-sheep would be sniffing around for the Avatar."
Everyone stared at him.
"What?" he asked. "Did you all just forget we almost got murdered by an international gang of evil ninjas?"
Zuko said, "I think that's still a little paranoid, buddy."
"No kidding," said Kori.
The princess and prince eyed each other, suddenly uncomfortable with having agreed with one another.
Mai said, "As much as I hate to agree with him, Sokka's right. Those fake airbenders knew exactly when, where, and how to get close to us. Somebody talked."
A thought occurred to Sokka. "Maybe. Maybe not. You can tap telephones and underseas cables, and codes can be broken. But yeah, I think a little paranoid is healthy right now. I mean, who knows if any one of us is really who we say we are? Even Appa might not really be Appa!"
Kori shook her head. "I won't hide up here in the mountains like some bandit. My first duty is to my people. Until we let our governments know what really happened at Ember Island, they're acting in the dark. Things could escalate. Wars have started over less."
Watching Zuko nod along to the princess's words, Sokka decided there might be hope to find common ground after all. The sight seemed to lighten Aang's mood.
"We won't hide forever," Aang promised. "We can get word to the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom; figure out what's really going on."
Mai said, "With every reporter in the world trying to track down the Avatar? Why not send up a flare? Plus, I bet the press will love to hear why Zuko and Kori are traveling with you and your ten ton furball. Or does your newfound love-fest extend to letting each other out of your sight?"
"No," Kori answered bluntly, "but I trust him."
Sokka stared at the finger pointing his way.
"He saved my life," Kori added.
Zuko said, "And I trust Mai."
"So do I," said Suki, and the fractional lifting of one of Mai's eyebrows suggested that was surprising news. The knife nut said a lot with a little, Sokka had observed. "Mai could have left me to die twice and none of you would have known. She didn't."
"This works," Aang said. "Sokka and Mai can report in, and then they can rendezvous with us somewhere."
Sokka gave the thumbs up. "Great plan! One problem. If we're not using Appa, how are we getting anywhere fast? I don't know about the rest of you, but I was expecting an all-expenses-paid vacation on Ember Island. The last of my pocket change went into those newspapers."
Everyone looked at each other.
"I've never needed money," Zuko said.
"Same here," said Kori.
"Mine's back under rubble," Mai said.
"I don't believe in worldly goods," said Aang.
"You people," Suki groused, taking out her wallet.
Sokka counted out the money within. "Being commander of the Kyoshi Warriors doesn't pay well, does it?"
"Oh look. I forgot this silver yuan."
Suki flicked the coin at his forehead.
Mai snatched the coin out the air on the rebound. "That was amusing, but all this isn't enough to get us very far. Plus you'll all starve to death without money for food."
Aang, offended, placed a hand over his heart. "I am an excellent forager."
"I can help too, now," Suki said.
"Okay," Mai said, "less to steal before we can get going."
Zuko grew thoughtful. "Well, there is one person who could help you out..."
Chapter 6: Consideration
The office was furnished in sumptuous style. Trophies from the admiral's long family history of service to the Dragon Throne filled the room. Ty Lee felt that history gradually press down on her chest like bent stone, suffocating her as she sat perched on her seat.
Zhao stood at the window to the rear of his grand desk, hands clasped behind his back. His figure was a looming black terror against the clean sunlight. Ty Lee couldn't bring herself to look at the admiral. "If you don't cooperate," he warned, "you know what will happen to your family, girl."
Ty Lee sobbed into her sleeve.
Zhao strode around his desk and stood over her. "Is your father's life worth your defiance? Your mother's? Tell me what I want to know!"
Sniffling, Ty Lee lowered her arm. "You're asking me to hurt someone I love. And the worst part is that I'm considering it."
He knelt down, bringing himself eye-level with her. With a clench fist, he demanded, "Tell me where the crown prince is hiding!"
"No!" Ty Lee twisted away. "I'll never talk! I'd die before I betrayed the revolution!"
Zhao threw out an arm and pointed out the window to the courtyard below. "Do you think anyone would stop me if I order an execution squad assembled? TELL. ME. WHERE. PRINCE AZULON. IS!"
And on that cue, the door to Zhao's office was thrown open.
"Azulon!" Ty Lee cried.
"Ilah!" said Li.
"I knew you'd come for me!"
"Yes," said Zhao, rising, fists igniting, "the prince has come - TO HIS DOOM!"
"Aaaaaaaaand cut!" Daoyan hopped out of his Director's chair, clapped enthusiastically. "Great take, people. I could really feel the sizzling emotion."
"I don't see why I can't just say the prince has come to his 'death.' 'Doom' is just so over the top."
Daoyan said, "Zhao, buddy, we've been over this. The censors just don't like the word 'death' in family movies."
"So I can threaten to execute people, but I can't use the word 'death'." Zhao snorted. "Why do we even bother caring about the censors? Unless they read lips, they won't know what I'm saying."
Ty Lee hugged her co-star's arm. "I didn't think it was over the top at all. You were very menacing."
"Hmm. You think so?"
"Totally!" Ty Lee slipped off him. She gave Zhao a pat on the back. "I can't wait to see what you do with the agni kai scene."
Zhao relaxed. "Well, who am I to argue with the most popular, beautiful actress in the world?"
While Zhao was distracted, Daoyan gave her a thumbs up. Ty Lee winked back. Zhao could get a little too wound up at times, trying to give an 'immortal' performance as he called it.
An assistant came up to her, a bouquet of red-veined soot irises in hand. Ty Lee took them and breathed in their perfume. Her favorite! But who could have known?
Daoyan frowned at the rear at the stage. "Hey hey hey. Who are they and how'd they get into my studio?"
"Who's they?" Ty Lee asked, turning to look. "MAI!"
. . .
Jaw hanging loose, Sokka watched as Ty Lee -- the Ty Lee -- sprinted over towards him in all her bouncy glory. The only flaw in this dream come true was that instead of hugging him, Ty Lee threw herself at the ox headed sourpuss. Sokka tried and succeeded at not letting that distract him from Ty Lee -- the Ty Lee -- hugging another girl.
Damn it, he had to keep it together. Not freak out in the presence of a gorgeous movie star.
"Mai! It's so good to see you! What are you doing in Ever-Ash City?" She spared a glance for him. "And who's this cutie?"
Cutie? Him? Him!
Okay, he might have peed himself a little hearing that.
Keep it together, Sokka. Be a man. Be THE man.
"H~i," he said, voice cracking.
Ty Lee, still hugging Mai's left arm, held up her bouquet. "You remembered."
"How could I forget? Only you would like such ugly flowers because they complement your aura. They make it look a chimney vomited all over you."
"Oh Mai, you haven't changed one bit!" Ty Lee tugged on the other girl's limp arm. "C'mon, let's go have lunch together! I know this little hole in the wall that serves the best Hot and Numbing Fish."
Mai asked, "Don't you have...?"
"Oh? My scenes are done for the day."
"They are?" Daoyan called out from across the studio.
"Yup!" said Ty Lee, smiling. "Come on!"
. . .
This time as they walked through the film lot, the Water Tribe idiot wasn't busy rubbernecking at everything. Instead his eyes were, ugh, glued onto Ty Lee. Next time Mai got stuck with a mission, she was bringing that Kyoshi clown along instead.
"How'd you even get past security?" Ty Lee asked.
"I'm an elite warrior who's trained for many years in the art of stealth. I think I can get myself backstage." As they passed the guard at the front gate, Mai pressed a wad of yuan into his waiting palm. "Here's the other half."
Ty Lee's little hole in the wall turned out to be anything but, with a kowtowing staff immaculately dressed in uniforms styled after those of a royal Fire Nation servant. Their manners were risible imitations of the real thing, although Mai supposed nearly everyone who dined here had no basis for comparison. It wasn't like anyone from the ruling class would go slumming in the Earth Kingdom colonies. Even Lu Ten lived with his empty-headed divorcee on the mainland Earth Kingdom. Ty Lee, on the other hand, had her own booth.
At least the fish was both hot and mouth-numbing.
"So you're playing Azula's grandmother," Mai said.
"A member of the royal family."
"Isn't that illegal without the Fire Lord's approval?"
"Is it?" Ty Lee wondered aloud, not looking up from drawing smiley faces in the steam condensation on her tea cup. "Oh gosh, then they might arrest me if I ever went back home. I really shouldn't ever go."
Mai smiled, small and tight.
Sokka, who had tucked the table cloth into his lap, spoke with his mouth full of boar-q-pine bun, "I'm kinda surprised that they're letting you make a movie with a hero Fire Lord." He belatedly swallowed, then took a big gulp of spiced tea. "From what I've seen lately, you people and the colonials get along like rat-vipers and cat-mongooses."
"They change the title cards for each nation," Ty Lee explained. "So the story's a little different for everybody. That way, nobody gets upset!"
"Each nation?" Sokka asked.
"The Fire Nation and," Ty Lee's hand fluttered around, indicating the room and colonial city beyond them, "the Earth Kingdom."
Mai said, "Azula would blow her top is she saw her grandfather bending over backwards to apologize for war crimes."
"I think she would be happy to see how her grandparents overthrew a big meanie like Sozin to bring peace to the world!"
"Right before they flew off on winged ostrich-unicorns."
"Huh. I don't remember that part, Mai."
"That's my... never mind."
Sokka, meanwhile, was still coming to grips with having his precious little world turned upside down. "I didn't know there were multiple versions of movies. Do they do the same thing for the Piandao serials?"
"He's a fanboy," Mai explained.
Ty Lee tapped her lips. "I don't know. We work for different studios. But good question!"
Sokka preened. "Well, you know what they say, a man's sexiest attribute is his brain, and I've got a big one."
She giggled. "And what else is big about-"
"If you finish that sentence," Mai declared, "I'll slit my wrists."
Ty Lee reached across the table and gave her a playful punch. If it had been a real one, Mai wouldn't have been able to move her arm for a quarter hour. "Oh Mai! Don't worry. I was only kidding around with Soahkah."
"It's pronounced 'Sock-Ka,' actually," he said.
"I wouldn't steal your boyfriend."
"He is not my boyfriend."
"Awwwww! That's so cute!"
"No, he's really not my boyfriend."
"She's really not," Sokka said.
"He doesn't even like Fire Nation women," Mai said. "He said I was too bony and pale."
"He did?" If you could bottle Ty Lee's furious chipmunk-wasp death glares, Mai was certain the Fire Nation would be able to reconquer the colonies in a single day and night. No one could withstand such force. "That wasn't very nice."
"Um, well... now wait just a minute! What I meant was that - that Mai is a very handsome woman and, um, maybe 'handsome' is the wrong word. In fact on further reflection it's probably the worst compliment I could give. But Mai is very pretty in a non-Water Tribe sort of way! Just like you, except with fewer curves and more knives."
Mai propped her chin up. "So now I'm flat-chested."
Sokka banged his head on the table and left it there. "I'm going to stop talking."
Ty Lee sipped her green tea. "So what is the daughter of the Grand Secretariat doing here?"
. . .
The clawed hand stroked Sokka's face. "You are like a delicate flower. Water Tribe skin tone, zo alluring."
He flinched away, but there was no escaping from the hair stylist. "I can disguise myself just fine!"
"We're not skulking through some backwater flea market this time," Mai replied from the next chair over. She was number two on the list, but had decided to pass the time by enjoying a front row seat to his debasement.
"I know that! And should we really be talking about our super-secret spy stuff in front of the hair lady?"
"You can completely trust She Liao," said Ty Lee. "She doesn't care for politics or anything silly like that, only her art."
"Zooka! It is time to make... ze magiks!"
. . .
Locked alone in a dressing room with Ty Lee, a sense of mortal peril suddenly befell Mai. Something which she hadn't even felt on Ember Island during actual mortal peril. But then, back then she hadn't faced the prospect of being a doll for Ty Lee to dress up. That the starlet wouldn't stop breaking out in giggles helped matters precisely zero percent.
Once Ty Lee was finally finished, Mai looked at herself in the mirror.
"I'm a dead woman."
Ty Lee draped herself over Mai's shoulders, giving her a little hug from behind. "Cheer up! Nobody will know you're you!"
That part was true. Mai certainly never would have been caught dead in the yellow-on-black monstrosity Ty Lee had wrapped her in. Colonial fashions favored slim silhouettes, below-knee hemlines, open sandals, and bared midsections. All of which meant bared skin and lots of it. Mai felt hideously exposed, and all around gross. Only her belt offered any readily accessible place to keep her knives.
On top of that, She Liao had pulled Mai's hair out of its customary ox horns. Now the great mass of it was behind her head in a braid, leaving prominent but slim bangs up front.
Where Mai drew the line was being dressed like a corpse. Her top folded right-on-left, like you saw dead people dressed before they were cremated...
...and on living people embarked on a suicide mission.
"Why did you dress me for a funeral?"
"It's the latest colonial fashion!" Ty Lee made a fist. "Tearing down the old order, making a statement about con... confernity? About being forced to fit in with what people think!"
There was a knock on the door. Sokka's muffled voice asked, "You decent?"
Mai replied, "Decent is not a word I'd use to describe this outfit."
"Come in!" said her friend.
The dressing room door creaked open, revealing Sokka transformed. The sight caused Ty Lee to slap a hand over her own mouth. A strangled laugh still managed to escape.
Mai said, "Decent isn't a word I'd use to describe yours, either."