"These are my summer clothes, Zuko. You packed my summer clothes."
"It is summer!"
"Barely. Ugh, the pink coat? I thought I burned that. Ty Lee must have hidden it better than I'd thought."
"Can I turn around yet?"
"No. And if I turn around and your hair is still in that abominable state, you might force my hand."
Azula finished dressing in her own good time, in robes that passed as fashionable when worn by her, with the too-light weight of a mere princess' headpiece pinned into her topknot.
Zuko was in clean clothes, at least. A bit too informal, but passably presentable, and with his back still obediently turned. His hair in its atrocious low ponytail continued to defy her.
"I didn't bring a hairpiece. Wouldn't it look even weirder if I wore a topknot with no hairpiece?"
"You remembered to pack my crown, but not yours."
"...Yours was more important?"
She would allow him his ponytail. For now. Besides; they were losing altitude fast, and the landing pad outside the Boiling Rock's caldera was in sight, with guards already waiting for them. There would be plenty of time for lighting her brother's hair on fire at a later date.
"This is a terrible idea." Zuko had the tone of an expert.
"It's been less than a day, Dum-Dum. Do you really think an isolated island prison is at the top of our dear uncle's list to inform of your," she rolled her wrist, "dramatic exit? Trust me, he's in no hurry to spread that news. But I guarantee the entire empire received the uplifting announcement of your impending coronation. We walk in, we walk out, and if anything goes wrong, I'll burn everyone who defies us."
This failed to soothe him. She hadn't intended it to.
The Warden waited at the foot of the gondola station, his armor polished to a regulation gleam, his highest officers arrayed behind him. Refreshments awaited in his office, and the Fire Lord's valued prisoners in their cells. This was not, after all, an unexpected visit.
The gondola came to a halt. Two former Fire Lords stepped off. With… no one else.
"Your Highnesses," he bowed. "I was not expecting the honor of your presence."
"Trust me, Warden," Princess Azula flashed her teeth, "I would be more concerned if you had been. Now. I would like to see my prisoners."
"Of course. Will your escort be joining us?" he asked, as if asking would make the gondolas begin moving again, and an escort appear. The princess had been prone to outpacing her guards, if not outright leaving them behind, in visits past. It did not seem appropriate for a prisoner transfer, however.
"I'm sure they'll catch up. The prisoners?"
"At once, your Highness. We have taken every precaution; as soon as the Fire Lord's message arrived, we separated them from the general population, and..."
The two royals exchanged a look. The Warden did not find it wise to speculate on its meaning. He also didn't find it wise to continue speaking over it.
"Zuzu," the princess asked, tilting her head to the side. "Is he taking us to them yet?"
"No," Prince Zuko said.
"Let me know when he is. And so help me if he offers refreshments first."
"...Right this way, your Highnesses." The Warden bowed again, and turned to lead them into the prison proper.
The prince began to follow. The princess did not. She stood examining her fingernails, a half-smile cut into her face.
"He, ah. He's taking us," Prince Zuko said.
"Thank you, Zuzu."
They began walking again. All of them, this time.
The prince—the crown prince—fell into step at the Warden's side, his sister a step behind. The boy was strangely thin, and strangely ill-dressed, and strangely forgoing his formal crown to wear his hair in some sort of peasant style instead. His thinness was the sort that some of the prisoners on their lowest levels had; a rather distasteful necessity in prison management, that, but when a Fire Lord orders someone locked away and forgotten, the Warden was quite adept at amnesia. As for the rest... perhaps it was a holdover from the boy's time away from court, or some new fashion in the capital. Such trends didn't generally reach them, here at the Boiling Rock. Not that 'emulating a colony refugee' was something the Warden would have encouraged among his staff.
For all that the prince looked like someone had dragged him out of a dark hole, the boy walked with a certain confidence. Casual curiosity, almost. Which was generally not the reaction most had upon viewing the Boiling Rock for the first time.
They passed from an imposing metal corridor into a walkway overlooking the prison yard below. All was sufficiently orderly; the first shift of prisoners was taking their exercise under the watchful eyes of his guards, their conversations—where such existed—hushed to reasonably cowed volumes. Others were about their chores. Those that saw the Warden and his party quickly ducked their heads, tucked their shoulders, and otherwise gave satisfactory impersonations of lizard-dogs at heel.
The prince paused to look down on them, and out at the prison at large.
"This is nice," he said. "Warm. Sunny."
"Lakeview," the princess added, and both royals laughed. One of the Warden's guards shifted uneasily at the sound. The Warden noted this for future reprimand.
The princess herself was looking significantly better than certain rumors to the contrary. She was also staring directly back at him.
"You," she said, "are wondering why I'm here. Did you really think my own uncle would keep me locked away?"
"Of course not, your Highness."
"How is Mai? Comfortable?"
"Azula," the prince warned.
"...This way, your Highnesses."
They followed him, and peered through the slits of the holding cells like they were at the Caldera Zoo. At the first, the princess made a dismissive noise.
"It's the Water Tribe Chief," the prince explained. "...I think."
"Chief Hakoda," the Warden supplied.
Not that the princess was listening; she was already peering into the next cell, her lips curling into a smile.
"Ah, my favorite prisoner. Perfect." She waved a hand over her shoulder. "Do your thing, Zuzu. I'll just be in here."
"Better be quick," she said.
The prince let out a breath. And turned to the Warden. "I, uh. I'd like to see Mai and Ty Lee. They're being pardoned. So... we're going to leave with them."
"Of course, your Highness. Do you have their release papers?"
"I didn't need papers to put them in here," the princess said. "I don't see why we'd need any to take them out. If you're so worried about it, send a hawk to Uncle Fire Lord. We'll wait."
The princess was not one to be kept waiting.
"...I'll send for them, Your Highnesses."
The Warden had not gained his position by questioning royal orders.
Azula was here. Mai hadn't seen her, but half the prison had; strolling over the walkway above, her crown restored.
Zuko was here, too. Maybe. People weren't as sure on that one, because even if he'd fallen from grace under Fire Lord Iroh's reign, no one started looking like a famine victim that fast. His royal portrait had made him look young and strong; not like this. But he had the prince's scar, didn't he?
He hadn't been wearing a crown.
Mai had thought Fire Lord Iroh would still favor him. They'd seemed close. And then Zuko had abandoned the old man in Ba Sing Se, so maybe that had been the end of that. Azula was the objectively better candidate for heir if Iroh was trying to bring Ozai's faction back into the fold. And apparently he'd deposed his nephew, so it really shouldn't be a surprise that those rumors of a coronation ceremony had gotten prince confused with princess.
It certainly wasn't a surprise when the guards came to collect her. Mai fell into step between them; no need to make this a bigger production than it already was.
Ty Lee had her own guards. They met in a hallway on the way to wherever they were both being taken. Ty Lee flashed a bright smile. Mai returned a bored nod.
They were brought to the Warden's office. Inside was Zuko, sitting on the corner of her uncle's desk with his foot propped up on a chair, picking at a tray of refreshments like fruit was a novelty to him.
"You're dismissed," he said.
The guards shifted uncomfortably. "It's policy to keep the prisoners guarded during interrogations—"
"They're being pardoned. Not interrogated. Guard from outside."
"...Yes, your Highness."
They closed the door behind them. Mai and Ty Lee looked at Zuko. He looked back.
"...Kiwi-grape?" he offered, holding out a bowl.
Ty Lee accepted one of the fruits, with a "Thanks!"
"Nice of you to finally visit, Zuko," Mai said.
"I didn't… know you were here?"
"Did you ask?"
Briefly, very briefly, a flash of that familiar glare broke through whatever this weirdly relaxed mask was. "I was—I was trying, okay? There were just too many things, and there were more everyday, and I didn't know you were in prison. I thought she'd just banished you like everyone else."
Mai crossed her arms. "Only banished. That's great."
He closed his eyes. Took in a deep breath, and let it out. Ty Lee took another kiwi-grape.
"So." His eyes flicked to the door, and the shadows of the guard's feet underneath. "You're being pardoned."
"On whose orders?" Mai asked, because Zuko really wasn't wearing his crown, and they were not going back to working for Azula. Not for longer than it took to run away.
"Mine? Iroh named me the crown prince."
Iroh. Not 'Fire Lord Iroh'. Not 'Uncle'. Mai narrowed her eyes.
"Great!" Ty Lee said. "Can you pardon our friend, too?"
"That's, uh. That's not a great idea. Our war balloon isn't very big, and it's a long flight to… Caldera."
"That's too bad." Ty Lee smiled. "We really want her to leave with us."
Once they left the Boiling Rock, once they betrayed Azula again, they weren't getting back in here. Traitors to the crown couldn't just walk in and take people from the Fire Nation's most secure prison. If they were getting Suki out, they were doing it now.
"Where's Azula?" Mai asked.
"With a prisoner."
"Her 'favorite' prisoner?"
"That's really too bad," Ty Lee said. She popped one last kiwi-grape into her mouth, and wiped off her hands on her pink prison pants.
Azula was in the middle of a refreshing bout of minor psychological torture when the cell door opened. It was her two traitors, plus her brother.
"Really?" she sighed. "Without even knocking?"
Mai pressed a sharpened piece of metal to Zuzu's neck. "Step away from her," she said, more to the guards than Azula. An accurate assessment of how much Azula cared about threats to her brother's safety. It was Mai's hand on the knife, but the Dum-Dum had clearly done this to himself.
Meanwhile, Ty Lee was relieving a guard of his keys to the prisoner's shackles.
Mai's gaze stayed on Azula. Azula's stayed on her brother.
"Zuzu. How exactly does one screw up a pardon?"
"They wanted to bring their friend. I said no."
"...Now I'm their hostage," he said. "So they can escape."
She couldn't help the little laugh that cut its way out of her throat, or her glass-edged smile.
"So the traitors betrayed you. What have we learned about trust, Zuko?"
He shrugged, in that maddening way that implied he didn't care. "It's still the right thing to do."
"You're not stopping us," Mai said, like a squawking shrike-viper was any part of this conversation.
"On the bright side," her brother said, "we definitely don't need paperwork now."
Neither traitors nor guards nor the prisoner rubbing her unshackled wrists seemed reassured by the sibling laughter that followed.
"A ship just docked, sir," reported the guard, after a perfectly executed bow. "Royal guard."
It appeared their Highnesses' escort had caught up.
The Warden nodded his dismissal, and spent a few more minutes in the yard, appreciating the tired misery of a well-run prison. It, like all final moments of happiness, went largely unremarked.
This was when the escape alarms went off.