Suki's slow exhalation of the world seemed to convey Mai's inward thoughts completely, though she wouldn't admit it unless she was forced to. With a calm stance and her hands in her sleeves, she made sure that she looked as if she was unaffected by the pristine scenery before them. Despite this, however, even she couldn't keep a tiny smile from her lips.
"Yeah," she agreed softly, "that's putting it mildly."
They had spent most of the day on Appa's back, flying through the air and very quickly turning Mai off of any kind of flying without ceilings whatsoever. They had occasionally landed once and a while for food and drink and other more pressing needs, but for the most part, their time was spent in the air.
Mai had honestly thought that the trip would never end. They just kept flying - and flying and flying - and it was growing not just tiresome, but boring. It was only when she realised with a funny little start that she suddenly had no idea where she was, and the fact that she felt absolutely elated by this confirmation of being lost, that she realised that maybe the flying wasn't so boring after all.
For a while, Aang had Appa circle around what looked like a wide expanse of brown and grey. Mai had puzzled over this, but kept quiet, unsure if she should find it familiar or not. But then she thought, Aang's a nomad; he knows the world better than anyone else upon it. So stayed silent, waited it out - and was rewarded.
Appa had landed on a tall expanse of sheer brown rock, a large almost-mountain that seemed determined to scrape the sky with its single finger. Mai had slid off the saddle and figured that the view would be as boring as the trip, but was pleasantly surprised to see that the scenery that yawned beneath them was lush and green, a valley riddled with untouched land with crisp streams and rivers like blue ribbons threading through it. The sky seemed to hug this close, and there were several other rockfaces that enclosed the valley into something almost private.
It was truly stunning.
Aang walked over beside them, smiling wide. "I used to come here all the time when I needed to think, even as a kid," he explained. "When Appa was big enough to carry me, we would explore anywhere we could without getting into trouble. This was one of the places I found."
"You mean that it stayed the same for a century?" Suki blinked, looking stunned.
Aang laughed a bit. "No, of course not. Things are definitely different. But, essentially..." He gazed outward, his eyes focusing on a far-off point. "Essentially, it's the same."
Mai looked away, trying to find the same kind of solace that Aang was obviously finding. She did find it breathtaking, but it wasn't something she could get lost in.
Especially when the first thing I thought was, "I would love to picnic with Zuko here..."
"Hey, Aang," Suki's voice broke into Mai's gloomy reverie. "This is a personal place, right?"
Mai looked up, and found that Aang was doing the same. His eyes were dark, the smile gone. "What do you mean?" he wondered, his voice edged with some suspicion.
Mai knew where she was going, and shot a glare to her, hoping to telegraph her "back off" thoughts, but either Suki didn't get it or she didn't care. "I mean, this is a place only you've been to, right? Katara hasn't been here before, right?"
Augh, Mai thought, fighting the urge to throw something sharp at her friend.
The single name seemed to weigh upon all three of them, but Suki found herself cold on the manner. Yes, the sight was beautiful, and yes, it was really sweet of Aang to bring them here, but why were they still skirting over the issue?
The shared avoidance that Mai and Aang seemed to hold close irritated her, as if they were pretending that the entire upheaval of their lives wasn't happening as they stood. The fact that they both seemed content to not talk about it was annoying her - although why, she couldn't quite figure out.
The silence stretched on too long for her taste. "Well, did you? I thought you wanted to go to a place that wasn't thick with memories."
Mai glared, her eyes blazing so bright that they seemed to hold a fire all their own. Aang's dark expression didn't change, but when he answered, his voice was tight. "It's kind of hard not to find a place that has a memory of Katara. I travelled the whole world with her by my side. This was the only place I could think of that would be the least hurtful."
"But it still hurts, doesn't it?" Suki pressed, staring at him. For some reason, she wanted to push him. She wanted him to show something. She was tired of his stonewalling, of his refusal to admit that things weren't okay, nor were there normal. And she also found Mai's encouragement of this horrible.
"Of course it still hurts," Aang answered bleakly, not at all the way Suki wanted.
"Then why aren't you even reacting?" she snapped. "Why would you bring us here at all? Why are you just acting like things are normal? They're not, Aang. Katara is with Zuko, not you! Why don't you care?"
Mai apparently had had enough. She strode over to Suki as soon as Zuko's name was spoken, stopping inches from her face. Suki felt a flash of memory, of fighting with this capable woman and being brought down alongside her women. The feeling only added to her - she knew - irrational frustration.
"Back off," Mai hissed, her breath almost hot in Suki's face. "You're picking a fight, and you shouldn't be. You're talking about things you know nothing about. Stop."
"I know nothing?" Suki spluttered in reply. "I know nothing? I don't know what it's like to be cheated on, to be left in the dark for years? I don't know what it's like to be abandoned by the one person I loved deeper than my own career? I don't know what it's like to realise it happened without me even knowing it?"
"If you know, then shut your mouth," Mai answered, her eyes hard, not at all looking affected by Suki's words. That just annoyed her even more.
"At least I'm willing to talk about it! At least I'm willing to be honest with myself, honest with the people around me, about how I feel!" Her voice was high-pitched, now. She felt desperate, determined to not be the only one feeling sad and upset by this. "Both of you are too busy swallowing your own bitterness that you aren't even noticing how you're choking to death on it!"
"And what do you suggest we do?" Aang's voice broke in, still in that frustrating, flat voice. "Break apart? What can be done about it, Suki? It's done, it's over, and all we can do now is keep going."
She looked over Mai's shoulder at him, ignoring the older girl's steady glare. "Try showing some emotion," she answered.
Mai started to move closer, her hands now in her sleeves. Instinctively, Suki followed her movements, making sure that she would not be caught off-guard. She met eyes with Mai again, only to quickly jerk back and wince. Mai's eyes were furious, but they were wet. Her face was dark, pulled into a grimace of pure rage – almost like hatred – and her teeth were clenched together. But those eyes were wet. It chilled Suki to the core.
"You want us to feel bad?" Mai wondered, her voice still an angry hiss. "You want us to wallow in our misery, bury ourselves in our pain? You want us to suffer right along with you when all we want is to keep moving? What's wrong with you?"
Aang was at her side in a moment, shaking his head. "I don't think she meant it like that," he admitted, sounding tired.
"I didn't," Suki agreed, but Mai shook her head. "You did. You meant it and you still mean it. Misery loves company and all of that, right? Well, what if I don't want to be sad? What if I just want to be angry?"
"Burying your emotions won't solve anything!" Suki protested. "Especially when you use another emotion as an excuse!"
"And so what, we should be like you, and abandon our country and mope around in foreign cities?" Mai sneered. Her words were like acid and they stung, biting deep down into Suki's core.
"Come on, don't do this," Aang broke in, but his voice sounded so blank and so tired that instead of helping, it only made things worse.
"Do what?" Mai wondered sarcastically, her eyes still on Suki. "Call her out? Tell the truth? Why shouldn't I?"
"You're the one who left your country behind, your family behind, for the sake of your own broken heart!" Suki answered. "At least I waited a year before I left! I made sure things were covered before I left! You just abandoned everyone!"
"I didn't have a choice. Everywhere I looked, there were sad eyes staring at me, eyes that showed only one thing: pity. I won't be pitied for something that isn't even my fault. I am a good wife! I did everything I could!" By now, she was shouting, her voice breaking on the word 'wife'. Suki closed her mouth, stunned. "I sat at Zuko's side, supported him, loved him, did everything for him! I gave up my freedom and my own personal desires to make him happy and to be by his side! I forgave him everything! And he repays me with this?"
The tears ran down her face, but she didn't notice. Her eyes were on Suki's, her face crumpled into a grimace of hurt. Suki's anger flickered and died out, extinguished at once.
Aang stayed quiet during this exchange, watching Mai lose control and let loose her emotions. When he was younger, he had always envied her cool personality, her ability to never wear her emotions on her sleeves. She was a perfect foil for Zuko's excitability, a calm pillar for him to lean on in times of strife. But now, he saw that even Mai had her limits, and once again he found himself envying her for a different reason. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he knew that Suki was right and that he probably should feel something, his emotions wouldn't respond to his own personal logic.
Everything she was saying was true. Aang himself had been a recipient of very similar glances, even from his best friends, and he was sick of it. It possibly hurt more than the actual source of his pain.
Even when he was younger, he always considered himself above allowing his emotions weigh him down. When faced with the gruesome reality of being the last of his race, he had a moment of pure angst before being able to lock that emotion away to nurse in private. When the weight of the world grew heavy upon his thin shoulders, he tried to make a game out of it, all while privately wondering when his time would finally run out. He had been through things no one his age ever should have to face, and yet he always managed to keep optimistic, even when everything seemed lost.
So why were things different now? Why had his reserves suddenly dried up? Why did he look at his two friends, see their tears and hear their agony, and feel nothing? Why couldn't he react, why couldn't he join in? Suki was, in a way, right in her accusations. And yet if he knew this, why couldn't he change?
"You're right," Suki was saying, her voice barely above a whisper. "I'm sorry. You don't deserve any of that. None of us do." Her eyes flicked to Aang, and he saw eyes that were sad, but not pitiful. "I keep forgetting that there are marriages on the line, here."
"Just one," Aang said dully. "Katara didn't want to get married. Now I know why."
Mai was rubbing her cheeks with one sleeve, her moves jerky. "I bet she planned this all along."
The comment was spoken offhandedly, but it bit deep all the same. "No, I really don't think that's right," Aang answered sharply. "I don't think that's it at all. I think she and Zuko had always had that kind of connection, and it really didn't solidify until after the war, when there was finally time to think."
"And that makes it all better," Mai answered, her voice dripping with bitterness. Suki pressed her lips together tight, obviously wanting to say something, but keeping herself silent all the same. Aang suddenly wished she would say something, if it meant getting of this topic.
"Weren't you the one that suggested that running from our pasts only makes things worse?" Mai went on, not looking at either of them. "Aren't you doing that right now?"
"No," he said softly, struggling to catch his breath. "I'm not running. I'm just stating fact. I'm accepting things as they are."
"Why?" Suki suddenly blurted out. "Are you okay with them?"
"No." The word bubbled out of his mouth before he could call it back. With its release came a sudden rush of frustration that he thought he had killed, making it even harder to breathe. "No, of course I'm not okay with them. Of course I'm not okay with my best friend and my girlfriend being together. I love them both, but … why did they have to betray me like this? Why couldn't they have just told me? How hard was it, anyway?"
He felt like he couldn't think anymore. All he could see was red. All he could feel was a tight squeezing within his breast.
"I feel the same way," Mai broke in, her voice husky with emotion. It was all she said, but those simple words were like a speech to Aang, really. Suki was nodding, her eyes downcast. He looked at them both, saw their shared misery and sorrow, and was sorry. Wordlessly, he moved closer to them and held out his arms, not quite sure what either woman would do with such an offer. But, to his delight, they both moved in close, their previous disagreement with each other forgotten, and as if it was planned, the three hugged each other tightly, a mix of anger and tears exchanged between them. The heavy silence was broken occasionally by a sniffle, a sob, or a sound from Appa and Momo.
Until Suki said, her voice chiding and slightly muffled from Mai's shoulder, "I told you it was better to talk about it."
Aang laughed, the sound so abrupt and so real it surprised him. He felt the tears spring to his eyes, hot and shocking, but he let them come. With each tear that dropped to the ground and blurred the sight of his two friends staring at him in surprise and – dare he admit it? – hope, the vise in his chest loosened just a bit.
When they joined him – Suki almost right away, Mai tentatively and only with small chuckles – his heart felt as light as a feather.
He wasn't alone, not anymore. They would get through this. There is always room to forgive. It's hard, but it would come. In the meantime, he had these two with him, who knew how it felt, and that helped him, more than he ever thought it could.