“Ty Lee!” Mai is running the balconies of The Boiling Rock, flinging the last of her knives as she goes. Ty Lee has already paralysed her guards and somersaulted onto the roof of the gondola by the time Mai reaches her
“Come on, this is our chance!” Ty Lee calls, her hands still shackled as she kicks the guard who had climbed up to follow her. The controls are still jammed so the gondola is already moving out and Mai knows that Ty Lee is right, if they wait any longer they will be trapped in this place until Azula finally decides to kill them. Mai runs, ducking the grab of a guard she jumps. Her fingers hook onto the very edge of the gondola, scraping of rust as they slip down. Ty Lee struggles in her shackles, her fingertips just grazing Mai's, almost close enough but not quite. She doesn't look down, all too aware of how swift her death will be if she can't fix this. So she thinks like Ty Lee, tucks her legs to her chest throws herself inside the gondola, landing with no grace but no injuries either. Ty Lee swings in after her, her arms instinctively moving to an embrace, but the cuffs hold her still.
“Let me get that,” Mai says, pulling a long flat blade from her ankle. In moments the lock is picked and Ty Lee’s arms are around her neck. but Mai doesn't have a chance to hug her back; her uncle, the Warden, is standing on the platform staring up at her. There is an engineer by his side working on the jammed controller and men standing next to the line with a saw.
“Mai!” He calls “I don't wish you dead, the other gondola will bring you back. If you chose to take it rather than forcing me to do the unthinkable things will be easier.”
“He can’t protect us from Azula, we’ve got to get out!” Ty Lee insists, but Mai is already hanging out of the window, judging the jump between leaving and returning.
“We’ll find another way out, this plan is doomed,” she lies and Ty Lee trusts her. They jump and when they land on the gondola that will take them back to captivity Mai hugs Ty Lee close. “Zuko will be back for us, he came here for people he didn’t even know, he’ll be back.” She says and Ty Lee nods.
“You love him,” she states “He has to come back.”
They pull into the prison, Mai’s hands are torn away from Ty Lee's waist and cuffed behind her back.“
Take my niece to solitary” Her uncle says “The Acrobat is being transferred”
“What!” Mai says, straining against the grip of men twice her size “You can’t do that!”
“Take her away.” The Warden hardly even glances in her direction as he gives the order
“Mai!” Ty Lee is calling, Mai is forced her to turn away
“I’ll come for you! When I get out I’ll come for you!” Is the last thing she says before she’s pushed down the halls to solitude.
Two weeks. It has been two weeks. Two weeks of solitude since she betrayed Azula, saved Zuko, and lost Ty Lee.
“I love Zuko more than I fear you”
It hadn't been a lie, but Mai had never feared Azula as much as she should have. Mai had never been on the receiving end of Azula’s rage because she had convinced Azula that it didn’t affect her anymore. She feared Azula now, now that she had betrayed her. Now that she had no wealthy family, no prince boyfriend, no Ty Lee.
Mai counted the days, fourteen, counted her remaining knives, three, counted the screws in the wall, 38, counted her allies, one, maybe two.
She had the lockpick blade hidden in her prison uniform, but no plan of where to go if she got out.
Three knives weren’t enough for an escape, her allies couldn't be contacted, and all 17 screws she could reach were welded in.
“He made time for that water tribe boy, he’ll make time for me”
Mai wasn’t going to let her own mind defeat her, she ate her rations, scratched words into the wall, stared at the ceiling. She counted the days, counted the words spoken to her, recounted the screws. She imagined Ty Lee, tried to channel that positivity, told herself how busy Zuko must be and how high security was now.
At 36 days inside the cell, Mai’s optimistic voice had all but died out
“If he loved me, I wouldn’t still be in here”
The number of days carved into Mai’s wall is exactly seventy when her uncle lets her out
“I put you in here to keep you safe, I didn’t want you to draw attention to yourself and get killed”
“Thanks.” Mai replies flatly, it hadn't been for her safety of course, it had been for the safety of their family name.
“Your boyfriend won the war, I figured I could let you go”
“He didn’t send for me?” Mai asks, hope she had forgotten she stilI had draining away
"I haven’t heard anything, his coronation is in a weeks time, he's busy”
“Right,” she said, pushing her negative voice away with better thoughts “Where’s Ty Lee?”
“The Box, she's been classified as a political prisoner," He said, "I can have an escort release her."
“No. I'll do it Mai says, she had a promise to keep.
Everything is the same, Ty Lee’s arms are back around her and the last two months are a bad dream
“Well, the war’s over so my uncle let me go”
“You mean Zuko…” Ty Lee doesn't finish the question but Mai answers anyway
“No, but he’s busy,” Mai says, Ty Lee nods but squeezes her hand, the excuse is weak but it’s all Mai has now.
"Can we hang around for a few days? The rest of the war prisoners get out soon” Mai agrees, and she realises that this means Ty Lee made friends on the inside, that she was allowed to roam the prison and talk to people, she didn’t have to keep herself sane staring at four walls. But Mai decides this isn’t Ty Lee’s fault, people underestimate her all the time.
They are both a mess, Mai’s robes are crumpled and stained from travel, her skin is dry and her hair is knotted. They only have one room in the Inn, but there is a basin of hot water and a kind landlady and it isn't a prison. Mai leans against the tub while Ty Lee sits inside it carefully working through Mai's hair with a comb. It is nice, simple, there is no threat but Mai isn’t bored. Ty Lee tells her about her last two months which mostly involve gaining the trust of the Kyoshi warriors and Mai tells her about her four walls and thirty-eight screws.
“You mean you never got out of solitary?” Ty Lee asks, her hands pausing in Mai’s hair “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine, my Uncle didn’t want to damage the family honour I guess” Mai is good at pretending things don’t affect her and Ty Lee is good at seeing when they do. She presses a kiss onto the top of Mai’s head
“Your hair’s done, why don’t you soak your robes in the tub?” She says, putting on the top of her prison uniform and drying herself off with the pants
“We need to get you something to wear?” Mai asks, stripping into her underclothes “My uncle gave me some money, do you want to go shopping tomorrow?”
“Let's think about tomorrow when it gets here. it’s been a long few months, let’s enjoy a night in a real bed” Ty Lee falls onto the mattress, rolling over to make space for Mai who smiles and joins her.
“Goodnight,” she says, and for the first time in too long, she hears those words back
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I have to”
“Have you decided what to say?”
“I’ll be right out here” Ty Lee squeezes her hand and Mai smiles back at her.
They are back in the Captial, back in the court she hated, back in the pool of etiquette and gossip. Her reception is completely lukewarm, people dance around the subject of her prison sentence and are more inclined to gush about the rumoured adventures Soon-to-be-Fire Lord Zuko had with the Avatar. Mai learns that he had been just as busy as she had imagined. He had been spotted in tavern’s across the earth kingdom looking for a woman named June, An ex-admiral claimed that he had been confronted by Zuko regarding his raids on the South Pole, and he had apparently ordered that a theatre company cease showings of a play that portrayed them and the Avatar’s team in a less than ideal light.
“I'm not even as important as a play to him!”
Mai pushes the voice down, but she doesn't forget it. When at last she is allowed through to the Fire Lord’s chambers she is less certain of herself than when she first arrived.
One look at Zuko, at the boy she was so sure she loved, and all she wants to do is forgive him. She wants the pain on his face to melt away into the familiar kisses of the summer before all this, but then he looks at her. His face flashes with surprise, then realisation, then guilt.
He didn't expect her here, he probably didn’t even know she’d gotten out. All Mai’s fantasies of their perfect reunion vanish and suddenly the voice is back, telling her there is nothing endearing about this boy who had let her rot in jail, who had played hero and forgotten her.
His words of, asking how she was, how she escaped, they just remind her that she had done so alone. The wrappings around the new scar on his chest reminded him what he had been willing to risk for his new friends, but not for her.
The half-baked plan she’d had; to forgive him and take him back with a playful threat and let everything go back to how it was, that plan couldn’t work anymore. Mai couldn’t push all these months aside and pretend not to care like always, and she didn’t want to.
So, instead of going back to the girl who Zuko hadn’t trusted enough to even break up with in person, back to the girl who had blindly followed the winning team because it was easier than making real convictions, back to the girl who didn’t try. Instead of going back she went forward.
Forward meant away from Zuko, away from the Fire nation and towards something new.
Kyoshi Island wasn’t like anywhere she’d ever been, the people and the training were nothing like she was used to. But Ty Lee was with her. Ty Lee who had done for her what she had done for Zuko, who had suffered alongside her rather than leave her behind.
Every morning she was woken up with smiles and kisses, no secrets were kept between them, there was no mistrust or fear either. Ty Lee wasn’t jealous or hotheaded, Mai wasn’t manipulative or controlling. They balanced each other out perfectly, Mai kept Ty Lee grounded, and Ty Lee kept Mai moving forward. They would visit home sometimes, and if Zuko ever needed protection they would be there in a moment, but Mai couldn't be there forever. She didn’t want a bland life of politics and royal babies and secrets. She wanted freedom and love and Ty Lee.
She had been friends with Ty Lee for as long as she could remember and she had spent the worst days of her life away from her side.
Together they had faced the Avatar, they had faced his team, they had even faced Azula. Now in peacetime, they faced life.
Hand in hand.