Chapter 1: Coronation
When Lady Mai asked her to bring the new Fire Lord's hair accessories to the veranda, Ying Hua had already been up all night. News of Firelord Ozai’s defeat by the Avatar travelled fast, and before midnight, she’d been plucked from her chambers, lined up with other apprentice maids, and picked out by the head servant keeper himself.
His announcement had been curt and to the point. “Firelord Ozai is defeated, and Prince Zuko our new Fire Lord. Due to ...previous circumstances, we’ve had to dismiss all of the prince’s servants. You lucky few have been chosen to be his new attendants. You will need to prepare his new chambers as Firelord right away, and tomorrow, prepare him for his coronation. Prove your worth!”
Then just like that, they were ushered to cleanse a father’s chamber for the son in a night’s work. Ying Hua’s fingers were raw from the amount of floor scrubbing, dusting, and the boxing of Fire Lord Ozai’s most private items. Having been sent to the palace for only six months, she wasn’t sure she was lucky to be chosen as one of the former prince’s new maids in a swift regime change.
From what she had seen in the last few months, the prince, who had been previously exiled for years by his own father, was then barely back before disappearing again, only to reappear to bring down his own father and sister. It was a highly dysfunctional family in her opinion, and who knew how long this new reality will last? She almost wished she could have been chosen to serve a more stable nobility, like the Fire Sages, or for that matter, the kitchens! Because no matter which direction the wind blows, royals gotta eat!
Granted, the much gossip she’d heard about the young Prince, and boy there was a lot of gossip, was actually generous — that though he was sour-faced most of the time, he was also fair and honorable. She couldn’t blame him for being sour though, after what his father had put him through, it was a wonder he wasn’t pricklier! She would certainly be.
Ying Hua was just in the middle of convincing herself that maybe she landed on the right side of history when Lady Mai appeared in front of her, requesting the Fire Lord’s hair accessories - a comb, hair pins, and a his royal hair sash that matched his coronation robes. She knew that it was Lady Mai, because, well, anybody who had spent anytime in the palace during Prince Zuko’s return knew who Lady Mai was. She was either sucking face with Prince Zuko, yes, the word in the halls was they were always sucking face, or being grippy, or eating sweets, or oh boy, she was hanging to the side of Princess Azula, looking bored.
Ying Hua wondered if that was a problem of allegiance for the young woman given the new circumstances. She’d only seen the Lady Mai from afar before. Up close, Ying Hua had a hard time imagining the somber, regal girl in front her doing much face-sucking. Nor did she look famously bored or impassive as rumored. If anything, Lady Mai looked like she had so much on her mind that Ying Hua felt sorry for her. And that’s a lot, coming from someone who spent their night kissing floors instead of princes.
A more sensible maid would’ve picked up on the signal that the lady was distracted, and redirected her to someone senior, but Ying Hua also knew she was given a task by someone who might become Fire Lady one day, and that this was the chance to prove herself. So if it’s the Fire Lord’s hair accessories she wanted, Ying Hua will get them come thunder and lightning. Only where could she find such a thing? She couldn’t use the Fire Lord Ozai's hair ties and pins and comb for Agni’s sake! That would be muddling with karma.
It was after much maneuvering and running around from the head servant keeper, to jewelry keeper, to the prince’s old chambers, to the Fire Sages, and congratulating herself on her swift thinking for procuring a jade comb, six golden hair pins, and a satin hair sash, that Ying Hua arrived breathlessly to the veranda only to stop herself in the shadows.
She gaped at the scene in front of her. Lady Mai was walking toward the new Fire Lord. He was hurt, with bandages over his upper body, but you couldn’t really tell because the smile on his face was so bright it was the diametric opposite of sour. She really had to take gossip with a grain of salt from now on. He was also clearly going for an embrace, but Lady Mai dodged him so elegantly and so very quickly helped him slip on the robe and tie up his sash. Ying Hua was just about to step in with her tray of painstakingly procured hair accessories, when the two of them started sucking face.
Perhaps gossip came from some truth after all.
Except wait, was the Lady Mai crying? Was that normal? To be kissing and crying? Shouldn’t she be happy? Like Prince, no Fire Lord Zuko clearly was with his hands absolutely gripping her. I mean she wasn’t sobbing and it was more or less silent but wasn’t that weird? Did Lord Zuko even notice? When a groan escaped his lips from want, Ying Hua finally snapped out of her feverish trance and realized in horror what might be happening next. The gossip was always, they were never exactly discreet. Ying Hua dug in her heel to turn around, and practically started running with tray in hand.
She’d gone maybe five steps before a knife blade hovered before her throat. She froze as her tray went spluttering down the ground. Ying Hua was eye to eye with Lady Mai, whose face was flushed clearly not from catching up to her.
“Mai! Who is it?” the Fire Lord was not far behind, wincing a little from his injury, and when he saw her, blinked, “a child?”
Ying Hua almost snorted at this, but her voice came out in a long squeak. “Iboughtthehairsutffyouaskedforladymai!!”
The blade was lowered as Lady Mai surveyed what was on the floor, and said calmly. “Pick everything up and come back to the room."
Ying Hua gulped, then bowed to the floor. When she picked up everything and walked back in the room, the Fire Lord was looking out onto Caldera and the sun with Lady Mai next to him, who was looking pointedly at her. Lady Mai bore no evidence of crying. Her face an impassive marble. Ying Hua teetered forward and brought the tray to her, holding it up with her hands and lowered her eyes like she was taught.
For what she could not see entirely, she could hear the long strokes of the comb against the Fire Lord’s scalp, could see several strands of fallen dark hair on the comb when it was placed back on the tray, could see Lady Mai’s coal black fingernail polish as she nimbly picked up the hair pins, could hear the pinning one by one by one, then finally the looping of satin against the Fire Lord's top-knot. Ying Hua's face burned as she willed her hands steady, feeling the weight of intruding on a private moment, a moment worse than maybe, catching them in the act and getting expelled forever from the palace. She had no idea why she wasn’t dismissed yet when Lady Mai’s hand gently lowered the tray in her hand.
“What’s your name?”
Her heart was thumping when she replied, “Ying Hua.”
“Thank you, Ying Hua, you may go now.”
She would only be bringing the essentials. These were, the knives on her body, a set of clothes, some morsels of food, and a lot of money. The rest she hoped the a lot of money would cover. She stole a long look at the portrait of Zuko and her in her drawer, and wondered what twisted feelings in the gut it might have conjured for him when he decided to leave. Maybe he didn’t even look at it, but for a split second, Mai had the urge to fold it into a small square and keep it with her under a knife, but also the urge to slash it into many small squares until their faces obliterated. She closed the drawer.
After all that was done and not said, Mai heaved a long sigh and thought simply: one sibling down, one more to go.
One could say she was taking a very dramatic and a cowardly way out, but Mai had suddenly come to sympathize with the Zuko who’d befuddled and left her so long ago. Sometimes it just made more sense to leave than think it through. Certainly when she came face to face with his utter and complete happiness, she couldn’t find the words. So instead she gave him a kiss, did his hair, and watched him step into the strange new world he had willed into reality.
Mai couldn’t find the words because besides an overwhelming urge to walk away, her mind was stricken by the simple fact that Zuko had won and Azula had lost, probably shooting lightning inside a fire resistant box right this moment. Even this might not have been a problem, except she was in some small way responsible. If she wasn’t the one who had to betray Azula to save Zuko, this turn of events would probably bring a curl of a smile to her face. Even if she would be rotting in prison, it would make her smile.
Instead, Mai found herself trotting toward the imperial prison where Azula was being held to say goodbye, and saw an Azula that was decidedly the opposite of shooting lightning. Instead of a high security prison, Azula’s cell was mid-level at best, and Azula herself sat in the corner without any chains. The lack of any security restraints was made up by the utter wreckage that was Azula. As long as Mai had known her, the princess had kept up with appearances, so the appearance of Azula with matted hair, bruises and cuts, unruly clothes, her body slumped over, and a hollowed look on her face struck something cold in Mai. Worse was when Mai called out her name, and Azula lifted her eyes and stared at her without words.
“Azula. I’ve come to say goodbye,” insisted Mai.
When Azula didn’t so much as budge, Mai’s gloved hands clasped against steel bars and said evenly, “It’s Mai.”
She’d come to submit herself to the wrath of lightning, instead she got stutters and quivers.
“Mai,” Azula’s voice was soft, as if tasting the lonely syllable of her name, searching for some recognition. “Mai.”
“Azula?” This time, a touch of desperation seeped into her voice.
When Mai was little, Azula was the first person she secretly liked. She imagined she wasn’t the only one stealing looks at the pretty princess prodigy who was as terrifying and interesting as exploding fire flakes. No day was ever boring with Azula around, striking pandemonium with her sparkling privilege and awe-inspiring cackling.
Where she was muted, Azula was free, was bending the rules to fit her. Where she was dull, Azula raised the stakes on breathing. So when Azula chose her, literally chose to befriend her through a gaggle of little girls, she thought she was being made fun of.
“Hey you, you’re in my history class. Come sit with me,” she’d been in her usual corner at lunch, eating alone when Azula hovered over her and gestured at her table full of people.
“Why?” Mai barely looked up from her food.
“Why? Because I like you,” Azula announced impatiently, as if talking about the weather.
And Mai had said no and left it at that, but she remembered being impressed by someone who could make such a bold declaration without so much as missing a beat, even if she was making fun of her.
Of course, Azula hadn’t left it at that.
Suddenly Azula was shuffling her feet and shrieking back like a wounded animal. “Don’t! Don’t come! Don’t come closer. Don’t come. Stay away. Away!”
Mai wrapped her fingers squeezed the metal.
"You are with him. You’re with him!”
She couldn’t understand this version of Azula, and asked. “Who, who is him?”
“Him! He took everything! He took everything away. He took mother. He took father. He took Mai. He took Ty Lee. He took fire,” a wild look came over her, and Azula raged forward against the metal bars and showed off her hands, “He took fire away!” and Azula laughed, and Azula laughed until she started crying, sobbing, and then she was silent again.
“What, what do you mean?” Mai sputtered.
Mid-level security and no chains, suddenly Mai knew exactly what had happened. “Azula, did the Avatar take your firebending away?”
The hollowed voice. “No, it was Zuko. It's always Zuko.”
The first sign of real change in Azula was when she became cruel. One could argue she was always cruel, always bossing she and Ty Lee around, always demanding things, certainly always taunting Zuko. One could also make the brittle argument that Azula was just incredibly excited all the time. Ever since Fire Lord Ozai personally oversaw some of her fire bending lessons, however, no such argument could be made. She emerged from the lessons sometimes too quiet, other times too listless, and it was the erratic moments in between when Azula became needlessly cruel.
Azula would tell you in the face that no matter how good she and Ty Lee got at silly knives and cartwheels they were still no firebenders and therefore worthless to her. Then Azula would mean it and ignore you for months and make friends with a group of firebenders.
When Mai did get very very good at knives and finally pinned Azula by her sleeves once, Azula let it slip to her parents that she had been playing with knives for a very long time. Her parents then went ahead and dumped all her knives in the sea, even the ones on her body, and locked her in her room for a month, and told her she was a “strange kind of girl.”
Azula would ruin your first kiss. She would ruin each and every encounter she’d had with Zuko, by burning her, by embarrassing her, by announcing “her crush" to the world, by threatening her to kiss some other guy, any other guy just to prove she didn’t actually care. So when Azula pushed her to the random firebender, Mai gave away her first kiss just to prove she didn’t care. Zuko walked into the garden at that moment and looked at her like he’d swallowed ash.
But even then Azula always came back in the most barbaric way possible.
One day all of Azula’s new firebender friends went missing. There were whispers of an incident that, depending on who you asked, was everything from a “brawl,” a six-person almost “Agni Kai,” to a terrible “training accident.” Azula emerged the next day with not a hair out of place and sat with Mai and Ty Lee again as if nothing had happened. Mai didn’t actually talk to anyone else besides Azula and Ty Lee at school, but from that day on she became acutely aware that everyone else was afraid to talk to her now.
After a month of siege in her room with nothing else to do besides staring at the ceiling. Azula visited her in the middle of the night, gave her a set of custom knives in a gleaming case, and told her she’d arranged additional training for her with some knife master at the palace, and that her parents couldn’t do anything about it because she’d been designated officially as the princess’ sparring partner. Then Azula told Mai that she wasn’t so strange. “It’s everyone else who’s strange.” The knives all have lightning blue talons and Mai’s single character name etched on them. She would never use them.
When Mai wouldn’t stop glaring blankly into a faraway place after the kissing fiasco, Azula finally stopped in the middle of a training session and plopped down next to her and blabbed, “so you are still hung up on losing your first kiss, how… dull.” Mai had done her best to ignore both siblings for a whole week, even when one sibling was consistently in front of her, but when Azula crushed her lips against her own right there and then, Mai could only taste fire and sweat. Afterwards, Azula simply shrugged. “Well, there you go, now I wasted my first kiss too. So we’re even.” Years later Azula would set her up with Zuko in Ba Sing Se and just positively swoon “how cute they were together.”
But even Mai wasn’t sure if Azula could come back from this new reality.
What was Azula without fire and heat?
“Listen Azula, I’m going to get you out of here,” Mai swallowed.
Chapter 2: Gloomy Boy & Girl
Between the last chapter and this, I think I've read every Maiko fanfic in existence (including rummaging through dead livejournals, which is like chasing the ghost of your past, I need to stop), and I have to say it's pretty complete and humbling. I guess there's something about this pair that draw out all the kids in the dark, add a dash of deadpan wit and proclivity for public indecency. What's not to love?
Zuko didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Let’s be honest. If he had a choice, he would drown— or at least try to smother the riot inside his head in freshly laundered Fire Lord bed linen— than be subject to this. Everyone was being tediously gentle with him, a hand on his back here, a soothing voice there like he was something fragile or breakable. When there was no resolution, Uncle went into deep discussion with the warden to mine more information. Aang had turned away toward the window in deep thought. Katara, Sokka, Suki and Toph began talking in low, strangled hisses.
Zuko didn’t feel fragile or breakable. If anything, comical suicidal scenarios aside, he was impressed with his own extraordinary foresight. Last night he’d gone to bed as a Fire Lord who ended the 100 year war, brought peace to the world, forged an everlasting alliance and friendship with the Avatar. He had been surrounded by his friends and allies, his uncle by his side, and his girl sent him off before the coronation. He’d gone from a boy stripped of everything except pride to a boy-lord who now had everything. Power. Friendship. Love. Identity.
“Too good to be true,” he muttered under his breath, as he had last night in a sudden flash of anxiety.
The fact of the matter was Mai and Azula had apparently waltzed from the imperial prison during coronation day, and now everything was coming undone. Zuko stood up, feeling more than a little boneless. “I need to find them. Uncle, I know you wanted to go to Ba Sing Se but…”
Iroh shook his head and looked at him in the eye. “As long as you need, nephew.”
“It won’t be long,” Zuko bit into his words, and was about dismiss everyone to bang his head against the wall when Ty Lee burst into the room, her hair in a lose ponytail instead of the usual braid.
“It can’t be true!” she darted straight to Zuko and spoke directly. “I was there at Boiling Rock when she saved you Zuko. You don’t understand. Mai would never betray you! She loves you!”
Zuko’s immediate reaction on seeing Ty Lee was to clench his fists, but the words "Boiling Rock," “Mai," and “Love" made his stomach churn in a brew of guilt, hope, and anger, that he had to physical look away. Then blind anger seized him.
“And what do you know about loyalty? You probably helped them!” he yelled, feeling the heat of his scar again. He had been briefed vaguely with what happened at Boiling Rock and hadn’t had time to process it. Mai had saved them, and Ty Lee in turned saved Mai. Their loyalties to Azula shattered. Zuko knew it was a cheap shot, but he took it anyway. He had no idea why he’d always been so capable of picking on Ty Lee like some school yard bully. Maybe because beneath her swirl of pink, he knew she was tough at nails. Maybe because he could never think of any comebacks to Azula.
To his surprise, Suki shot up next to Ty Lee, which meant Sokka was immediately by Suki’s side, which meant Katara, and Toph and everyone now hovered over him.
“Listen Zuko,” Suki began. "I know this is… a difficult time for you, but Ty Lee has been with the Kyoshi since Boiling Rock, uh, saving Mai saving you, and we were all together yesterday for the coronation. I vouch for her!”
“I’m glad you can trust her so easily after just a few days, but maybe you just haven’t experienced enough betrayals in your life,” replied Zuko cooly. Another cheap shot, Zuko groaned inside. It was like he was outside of himself.
“NOT cool, Zuko,” Sokka said in a flat voice.
“Whipping back to your emo-ness at the first sign of trouble huh? Good for you Sparky!” Toph rolled her eyes.
“Toph...” Katara scrutinized him with what Zuko feared was a look of pity, shaking her head gently. “Don’t.”
“What? We all expect more from him!” Toph shouted back at Katara, then pointed her finger back at him. "If you want to shrivel up in a corner and brood about how the world has wronged you again, by all means, but it’s not going to solve anything!”
A flash of heat broke from the pit of his stomach, fire crackled in his palm, and he felt the all consuming urge to lung forward. He must have gotten up too, because in that moment Toph, Katara, Sokka and Suki all stepped into defensive stances. Their eyes wide and worried, as if they had suddenly travelled back into time and he’d morphed into Zuko they’d always known. The angry, arrogant villain prince hot on their tails. Was that it it? What that what he was still?
Maybe that was what broke him, that no matter what happened, the shadow of the past will always be apart of him, and at any moment, snatch the present away. But suddenly Aang appeared by his side, his hand like running water on his shoulder, his eyes wise beyond his years boring into him. When Aang shook his head gently, Zuko had to clench his teeth to force his palm to close. The fire in his hand extinguished but radiated throughout his body, heating his veins until he slumped back with eyes squeezed shut and let out a loud, painful howl.
Katara was the first to drop her stance, running next to Aang to try to hold him up. “What are you doing to yourself Zuko?!”
Uncle Iroh was the only one smiling as he strolled in front of the scene. “Learning to control his rage, very good Zuko, but slowly you will see that the answer lies somewhere between destroying others or self-destruction.”
“Uncle...” Zuko, now white in the face and breathing heavily, looked up at Iroh, still heaving, then nodded at Katara, who was about to move into a healing for him. “It’s okay Katara. I’m all right.”
Zuko nodded at Aang too, who still simply looked at him. He didn’t pick up on this yesterday, maybe because of the flurry of motions that went on announcing world peace, but his one true enemy turned friend, truly looked like he had aged years in one day. There was so much weight, loss, but also empathy, clarity, and strength in his eyes that made Zuko feel very small. Zuko wished he could ask Aang exactly what had gone on in his battle with his father, but that will have to wait. “I got it, Aang.”
“It is by opening your heart that our precious peace was won, but you will find that keeping peace is harder work than war. You will face many obstacles from now on, and it is not the time to close yourself,” said Iroh firmly.
Zuko took a deep breath, and let the breathing cool his body in a meditative stance before finally turning to Suki, “I know I should know better. I’m sorry Suki.”
“Don’t! Don't worry about it,” Suki squawked in surprise, then squeezed Sokka’s so hard while a grin shot up Sokka’s face.
Then Zuko slowly to Ty Lee, studying the girl he had known for so very long.
“She’s telling the truth Zuko,” huffed Toph.
Zuko sighed. “and you too, Ty Lee. I’m sorry. My uncle is right, and Toph is right too.”
Now it was Toph’s turn to gape. “Uhhhhh…..”
“Look, I know you’re ALL right. It’s just hard, you know, I’m just so…” Zuko began sheepishly.
“Used to being angry?” offered Sokka.
“Exhausted from the life and death battle with your sister, lack of sleep, and the fate of the world? Unresolved feelings on imprisoning your own father and sister turned to being scared to the shits what the re-unleashing of your psychotic sister means for the free world?” said Sokka.
“Yes! I mean no! But yes!”
“Angry at Mai?” Ty Lee offered in a small voice.
Zuko looked at her warily. “—Worried for her. I wished, she would have just talked to me about it,” he sighed.
“Kind of like that time when you left her that note?” Sokka shot a finger up in the air.
“SOKKA!!!” Suki yelled and dug her knuckles into his ribs. “You’re NOT helping!”
“What? It’s the truth! Gloomy boy and girl SUCK at communicating!”
“Matter of the heart contains many facets. If you hold it up to the sun, depending on the angle and time of day, you may find a very different hue. Yes, the heart is a confusing rare gem and you must not rush into judgement,” uncle beamed and twirled his finger.
Zuko decided to let that one go and was glad when Ty Lee steered them back on course. “I still won’t believe it Zuko. Something must have happened.”
“Yeah let’s think about this. Is there something we’ve missed?” asked Sokka.
"Did anyone actually see Mai yesterday?” asked Toph.
“Maybe, Azula threatened Mai somehow, and, forced her to break out of prison? Azula kidnapped Mai?” Katara shot up a finger.
“I saw Mai yesterday, and I think she meant to leave,” Zuko almost whispered.
“What do you mean?” Suki gasped.
“Before the coronation, she didn’t say much. She just helped me get into my robes, and I thought she forgave me for... well everything,” Zuko’s face flushed at the memory of his goodbye note and scenes from Boiling Rock. “But, something was off. I was going to ask but. She meant to leave. I feel it now.”
Ty Lee shook her head desperately. “Please, let’s talk to the guards again. Azula—”
“It’s not Azula, and the guards said Mai leveraged her relationship with me to get Azula out for medical help.”
“Leveraged what now?” Sokka asked.
Zuko went red in the face. “Look, everyone in this damned palace has seen us… together.”
“Which means what Sparky?” a wide grin spread across Toph’s face when she felt him go red.
For a very brief moment, Zuko locked eyes Ty Lee, the only person in the room who might be able to conjure images of their teenage excess, and was grateful, albeit almost surprised that she maintained her serious face, only to groan because it alerted him to the gravity of the situation, that giddy, happy, optimistic Ty Lee was still looking so glum. “Look, obviously I have to reevaluate prison security right away. ”
“What do you mean by medical help?” Ty Lee frowned.
“Azula was unconscious,” replied Zuko,.
“Unconscious?!” Everyone cried.
Aang, who had been silent all this time, suddenly spoke while Zuko listened with a near shudder. “I took Azula’s bending away too, after Ozai. She may be unstable,” Aang said.
There were gasps and one yelp from Toph, but Ty Lee nearly fell to the ground if it weren’t for Suki, who by reflex, steadied her.
“Wow, when did you have time to do that?” Sokka marveled after a long silence.
“Aang didn't want to do it. It was me. I asked him to take her bending away,” said Zuko.
“We made the decision together before imprisoning her,” corrected Aang pointedly.
“I’m not proud of it,” said Zuko, “but Azula was sprouting fire from her nostrils. It was escaping from her body. I almost think, if Aang hadn’t done it, she would have imploded from within.”
“So that must be why,” said Ty Lee slowly. “Maybe Azula really did need medical help?”
“The healing wards across the city have all been checked. No sign of her. If Mai meant to leave and take Azula with her and that was yesterday, they might be long gone now.”
“So what’s the plan? You want us to help find them?” Toph asked.
“No, I think it’s gotta be me,” Zuko rose. "I have to be the one to bring them back. Uncle will act as regent while I’m gone. I want to thank all of you, but this is a family matter,” he bowed his head.
“Then at least let me help, let me go with you,” Ty Lee stepped toward him and smiled sadly. “The four of us are probably due for another bonfire chat.”
“And the rest of us will wait until you’re back. We can oversee security, and Aang can help with diplomatic matters with Iroh,” Katara said.
Zuko looked back at Ty Lee, met the gaze of Aang and Katara who nodded back at him, and breathed a deep “thanks.”
“Don’t mention it Sparky! If you want I can start on that prison security project for you. You know, I’ll just leverage our relationship and knock some dunderheads together,” Toph cracked her knuckles.
Everyone else groaned.
Chapter 3: Dysfunctions
I like Maiko, but I like dancing around Maiko more, or other characters talking about the idea of Maiko. This is why this story has so much lead up, but the two of them will interact soon. Truly. Because a good love, like a good life, has to contain some good suffering.
Azula’s fever finally broke on the third day. Outside it had started raining, the day so dark it felt like night time in her aunt Mura’s makeshift guest room with a small shaft of light beaming out of an upper window. Mai spent the last two days wiping down Azula with cold towels, and trying to force liquid medicine down the delirious princess.
Azula had been fitful in her sleep, alternatively whimpering and thrashing. When her body temperature finally steadied, it was Mai who looked like hell. She’d always been a light sleeper, but even with the door triple-locked, Mai still woke with every little sound in the room. Azula may not be able to bend, may be feverish, may be weak, but Azula was still Azula, and Mai owed Zuko that much to keep his sister accounted for at all times.
Semi-lucid Azula returned her favor by shoving a hand against Mai’s throat when she brought a bowl of medicine under her lips. Judging by Azula’s strength, maybe she didn’t need anymore medicine. Mai made a strangled noise as she felt the unforgiving grip, but without losing the bowl in her right hand hand, she shot up a blade from her wrist to her left hand and brought it against Azula’s throat.
When Azula flinched back, Mai whispered. “We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way.”
“Traitor,” Azula’s voice was not its usual glib and smooth, but low and coarse almost like her own. She was weak still, maybe used the last of her strength in the strangle-hold.
Mai shrugged. “So what else is new?”
“I’ll kill you.”
“Hard way then,” Mai stabbed Azula right above her breast, enough to make it hurt and for Azula to yelp and loosen her grip. Then Mai grabbed the ropes she’d kept on the side and fixed a grimacing Azula to the bedpost. When she finished she nodded at her work. “Look, you’ve lost your firebending. You’re banged up from a duel with your brother. You’re recovering from a fever that almost fried your brain, and now you’re bleeding from trying to strangle me. Me? I have all my knives and a very sound and healthy mind. So I wouldn’t try anymore funny business.”
Azula heaved a breath and thrashed against the rope, blood trickling from chest. “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you and Zuko. I’ll kill you and Zuko and Ty Lee!”
“Anyone else you want to add to the list?”
“I’ll kill everyone that you care about! Your mother and father and your brother. Zuko and Ty Lee.”
“It keeps growing. You must think I’m a people person.”
“Where are we?”
Mai sighed. “Not in jail anymore, princess.”
“Let me out!”
Mai decided now was not the time to force-feed Azula the medicine. “I’m going to get you some bandages and food, and you can decide if you want to keep on screaming when I come back.”
Azula responded with another scream. “I’ll kill you!”
When Mai closed the door from the outside and heaved a sigh, she wondered for the twelfth time what possessed her to jailbreak Azula. With the Avatar beating Fire Lord Ozai, the end of the war, Zuko becoming Fire Lord, and all that hoopla, for once she couldn’t claim boredom. No, there was really no other reason besides sheer instinct, the same instinct that made her spout out melodramatic declarations like “I love Zuko more than I fear you.” Except, she hadn’t anticipate the follow up, “but apparently I also loveyouenough to not let you rot in jail, you bitch.”
There was a reason why she wanted to get away from her favorite siblings. They had a way of controlling her, left and right to no end. All she wanted was to break away for once finally, to be her own woman, but of course she would only accidentally whiplash between the two. And did she have a plan after rescuing Zuko at Boiling Rock? No. And did she have a plan now with Azula? No. So when Aunt Mura gave her an absolute frightful look at the animal noise coming from upstairs, Mai only spat, “she’s fine. Her strength is back.” I’m the one who needs a doctor, she thought, for my head.
After grabbing some bandages and a bowl of porridge, Mai made her way back to the godforsaken bleak room to stunning silence. She rushed to Azula, nearly laughing at herself in fear that she might have accidentally killed her, or that Azula bit her tongue and bled to death. Only to realize Azula would never be weak enough to be killed by her or go for suicide. She had that much going for her. Instead, Azula tied up against the bed seemed to have fallen asleep. Her breathing even, the rather shallow wound on her chest stopped. So Mai stared at Azula in the dark, cleaned her wound, drank the porridge meant for Azula, and finally, lay back to the first good night of sleep since she kissed Zuko full and deep in the mouth before she ran the hell away.
When Ty Lee burst into Zuko’s office first thing in the morning, it was the third day from when they made the decision to go find Mai and Azula together. Zuko was bent over a stack of paperwork when she slammed her hands on his desk.
“What’s the deal Zuko? Are we going or not?”
Zuko looked up at Ty Lee blearily.
“Oh cricket-worms! Have you slept at all?” Ty Lee gasped at the bags under his eyes.
Zuko dragged his hands down his face in attempt to wake up. “Mai’s parents arrived yesterday. They are being inquired whether they have any information on her, which they don’t, but I’m also asking for a list of known relatives and their whereabouts who she may turn to. Do you know if she have any other friends?”
Ty Lee giggled. “Mai? Of course not!”
Zuko thought of quiet, anti-social, dangerous Mai with no other friends except Azula and Ty Lee. Was it schadenfreude that made him glad she had no other friends? Or just that he’d had none until he met Aang? It wasn’t that he was proud of being too much of a loner himself. It was just that being around too many people made him sweat. Once upon a time, cranky and bored and alone together with Mai at a party in Ember Island, he’d thought he finally found a way of fitting in, well, until he didn’t again. “I’m also tracking where June might be, but no word yet.”
“She has a pet shirshu that can track anything. If we find June we can find Mai and Azula right away, but apparently she’s not at her usual haunts. If I don’t get a hawk by noon, let’s just go in the afternoon. We can go down the list of known relatives.”
“You did all this… when?”
“After the meeting when we decided we’d track them together. What? You think I’d forget about it?”
“Zuko, you’re… no wonder Mai says you’re hopeless.”
Zuko raised an eyebrow, but didn’t press it.
“How long have you been up?”
“All night. I have to go through all these papers before I leave so Uncle has clear directives...”
“You could have told me, and let me, and others, help.”
“You can’t, it’s my burden to carry,” Zuko said, but before Ty Lee could protest, he softened his expression, “but you can help me with something else. What exactly happened at Boiling Rock.”
“Zuko, why don’t you sleep first?” Ty Lee insisted gently.
“Please, it’s on my list of things that I must know.”
“And how long is that list?”
“One thing less if you could just tell me.”
Ty Lee didn’t sigh, she made a growling sound, pulled up a chair, crossed one leg and stared straight at Zuko. “Azula wasn’t very happy on her way back down. They were about to duel. I chi-blocked Azula. We were thrown in prison and told to rot. Then the Avatar defeated your father, you became Fire Lord, and we were freed.”
“I mean, Why did… why did Mai do it? Why save me after all I’ve done?”
Ty Lee smiled. “You know, Azula asked the same thing before she was about to strike, but you should know better.”
“Mai just said, ‘You miscalculated, I love Zuko—“ Ty Lee did her best impersonation of Mai’s deeper voice with a dramatic pause,"more than I fear you,’” and when the blood drained from Zuko’s face, she laughed. “A bit dramatic if you ask me, but you know how Mai writes stage plays in her head. It’s always the quiet ones you know.”
“Yeah,” Zuko gave his own uneasy chuckle, feeling the weight of Mai’s declaration. For someone who was quiet and kept her emotions under wraps, Mai had always been brazen, almost insolently honest about her feelings toward him. He couldn’t help to think her disappearance was a way of her brazenly saying she was finally fed up. “And what about you?” Zuko croaked.
“Why did you stop Azula?”
It was Ty Lee’s turn to blanch, and she began sheepishly. “I wanted to stop her before she did something she would regret, because, deep down inside, I want to believe she doesn’t want to kill… or hurt Mai, just like she doesn’t want to really kill you, I think, but Azula has bad moments. Sometimes she snaps outside of herself, and that was a bad moment as any, and she really could have... I don’t know. What would anyone have done? What would you have done?"
"I didn’t do anything. I walked away,” Zuko stewed. “And now Mai walked away, and if Azula had any reservations in killing me before, I think I’ve nipped that last thread of sibling love.”
Ty Lee tilted her head. “Is this what it’s about? Look, You did the right thing by walking. End of story. She didn’t need to save you only to have you come back to get yourself killed. You have got to trust her. You’re job was to help the Avatar. Our job was… well, keep the balance between you and Azula I guess, or maybe just in herself so she doesn’t go berserk,” Ty Lee cringed.
“Is that what you’re doing the whole time?”
“I… Look. I don’t have some grand explanation about honor and destiny that can direct my course. My path wasn’t guided by your happy happy noble vision of a more fair and peaceful world. Most of the things I’ve done in my life are out of fear and frustration, and I’m not proud of them, but chi-blocking Azula was not the bravest thing I’ve ever done. I would have done it for any of you, including maybe… Azula,” when she said it, she seemed to surprise herself, then deadpanned. “I won’t disagree that taking away her bending is shredding the last bit of sibling love, or her humanity though.”
“She’s lucky that she has you two. Maybe with your help, Azula can...”
“We’re lucky to have each other. I know that we may not have the most normal friendship, but that’s how I like to think of the four of us, anyway. Dysfunctional friends by extraordinary circumstances.”
“The four of us. Friends,” Zuko repeated thoughtfully. He spent so much time trying to win the Avatar and his friends over because he had to play his part in finding peace, but also had been so proud of himself of making normal friends his age. Meanwhile, Ty Lee considered them friends, because hadn’t they known each other all their lives? Hadn’t they sat around a bonfire and had a weird heart to heart followed by his breakdown? Weren’t they all a little angry a little messed up and wrecking havoc on others and each other had been fun? Weren’t they friends who’d kill and die for each other, or at least, kill each other?
Ty Lee reddened on seeing Zuko in deep thought. "I mean, if you get over hating us for being on the wrong side, and get over Azula being Azula.”
And then there was Ty Lee, who Zuko had always regarded as a veritable blur of colors and movement, and Azula’s minion, instead of fully human, because he was too stuck in his own head. Ty Lee,who didn't dissolve in a puddle of giggles when it mattered, who on the other hand, thought of him as a friend.
“We’re more than friends,” said Zuko, “we’re family, in a sense, and family stick together, and me of all people know about being on the wrong side.”
“Oh Zuko!” Ty Lee launched herself to hug him, tears actually brimming from her eyes, then she released him just as suddenly. “To be honest I think Azula has gone off the far end and there’s no way she wouldn’t kill me if she hadn’t killed Mai already! But, but if they’re still alive we’ll find them and we’ll make it good. I swear it to you!”
In the grand scheme of things, Zuko knew he had to confront Azula again, just like he had to find out what happened with his mother. Whatever plan Mai had in leaving with Azula, maybe it was good that she forced his hand to face it sooner rather than later.
Ty Lee grew serious again, he was getting used it. She talked rapidly and authoritatively. “I talked to Iroh. For security measures, we think you need to assure the warden, prison guards or anyone who knows about this that Mai had the authority to move her, and we’re working on an off-site solution for Azula. Basically, you have to convey that you have things under control in the Azula matter until we find out what happened.”
“That makes sense,” Zuko nodded. He didn’t love lying from the start of his administration, but he couldn’t risk to appear weak and out of sorts either.
"As for you leaving, we’ve sorted that you’re attending a reconciliation meeting with the Earth Kingdom, and have you leave officially instead of sneaking away. The Kyoshi Warriors can act as your body guards, but once we get to safe distance, they will leave and it will be just us. As for when we leave, you need sleep first, Fire Lord. Will you sleep tonight so we can leave first thing tomorrow?”
“You guys planned all this out while…?”
“While you buried yourself in paperwork and not sleeping? Yes, we figured you wouldn’t ask for help,” Ty Lee winked.
Zuko sighed, suddenly tired and overwhelmed. “Ok, ok, point made. I promise I’ll sleep.”
Mai woke up and Azula was staring at her, unblinking. Mai groaned, she could deal with crazy Azula, but she just wasn’t sure about the vulnerable or zombie Azula. Also, sunlight was pricking in her eyes, so that was annoying, but at least meant that she was rested, even though the side of her face was numb. Mai pushed herself up into a lotus position facing Azula. When that only made Azula lean back more against the bed, she swept her hair back to expose her white neck, in case that could entice Azula into some strangle action.
When still Azula just sat. Mai rose and said, “Ok, well, I’m going to get some food. Be right back.”
She came back with two semi-warm steam buns and held it in front of Azula, who continued the game of silence. So Mai brought the steam bun to her own mouth instead, and took a huge bite. “It’s not poisonous, see?”
She chewed vigorously, and after devouring the bun in less than six bites, decided to undo the rope bindings on a docile Azula, then ripped a piece from the other steam bun and gently pushed it into her captive's mouth. “Eat, you haven’t had anything solid for days. This will settle your stomach.”
Azula wouldn’t open her mouth.
“C’monnnn, you once ate twelve mochis in a roll and I thought the Kemurikage was coming for me. So don’t you pretend you’re not a food monster.” Mai started prying Azula’s mouth open until the latter relented. “There, that’s better.”
So they sat. Mai feeding Azula small finger bites of bun one at a time. Each time she would touch her forefinger to Azula’s lips, wiggle it against her teeth, until finally there was a small opening. When finally Azula ate the whole bun, Mai fell backwards to the floor with a sigh. “Well, that was exhausting. So what else do you feel like doing today?”
She was beginning to hate this Azula, who gave no orders, whimpered too much, and still ended up making Mai do all the work. “We could go out. If you’re up for it? Get some sun? You like the sun. Maybe the heat will snap some life in you so I’m not talking into the void. What do you think? But not like this,” she wrinkled her nose at Azula’s appearance. “You stink.”
Which was awful, because Azula liked to be keep things shiny and clean, especially herself. Mai had thrown herself into a bath the moment Azula had fallen asleep after they arrived at Aunt Mura’s by refugee ship then by foot. Azula was still in her worn robes from prison. So Mai shouted for Aunt Mura to draw a bath, and together they stripped off Azula’s robes and hoisted her into the wooden tub.
“The child has been through a lot,” Aunt Mura said. “Will she be violent again?”
It was strange to regard Azula as a child, but now that she was doll-like with hollow eyes, it was hard not to think of her as a child. “I hope so, because I’m not sure who this person is. She seems to zip between two states. So might as well take advantage when she’s quiet.”
Aunt Mura laid on a hand on Mai’s shoulder and squeezed. “I’ll find some clean robes for her.”
Mai nodded. Aunt Mura had asked nothing of her when she showed up with Azula, and Mai was extremely grateful for that. She couldn’t begin to explain what she was doing, but she was glad she came to Aunt Mura instead of dragging Azula across forests and caves to hide out. When Azula gets better though, they will have to get a move on.
Mai started washing Azula’s hair, combing it out with her fingers in long strokes. Then she used her thinnest dart to dig the dirt under Azula’s fingernails. When the water got cold, she tossed her own robes so that she was only in her underwear and chest bindings. Then she carried Azula out of the bath, put her on a stool, glided a sponge up and down on Azula’s arms, back and legs, splashed more water for a full rinse. It was surprisingly hard work.
Besides Zuko, in his most broodiest, Mai had never taken care of anyone like this in her entire life. In fact, even with Zuko at his lowest, she remembered only summoning her strongest snark, and only when that didn’t work, did she tiptoe into comfort territory. Still, even those moments didn’t include washing and feeding. Sure, she was occasionally forced to help with Tom-Tom, but that had always been to stand in while her mother or a maid frantically ran to clean up something the baby had broken, or wipe up the floor splattered with vomit. Mai should be thankful that docile Azula acted like a baby minus all the crying and fussing, but in general, she didn’t like feeling fully responsible for another human.
“All clean, your highness,” Just as Mai was reaching for a towel, she spotted what looked like a single tear on the corner of Azula’s eye. So she wiped Azula’s face first, slowly and fully. It couldn’t be.
Chapter 4: Fireworks
The setting for this chapter is inspired Nara, Japan, a city that used to be an important capital in the 700s. I’ve been interested in Nara since knowing about its intimate connections with Tang Dynasty, China, and upon visiting it recently was simply moved by its contained spiritual sensibilities. Hence, the forests and shrines are thanks to Nara.
Stepping out with Azula was risky, but after two days of passive Azula, Mai figured some street life might do her some good, jog some memories, maybe jolt her heart. The possibility of Azula staying in this strange stupor didn’t exactly appeal to Mai, despite a lifetime of often wishing Azula would just take it down by a notch. The point being one notch, not twelve notches into negative space.
Until Azula could regain full self-awareness, it was hard for Mai to decide what to do next. If Azula decided to suddenly act out, Mai had loaded a row of tranquilizer darts in the holster strapped to her left wrist and her usual knives on the rest of her body. That had been difficult, considering Aunt Mura had dressed them up in festival robes and they were now both looking ridiculously doll-like.
“Aunt Mura, this is ridiculous, I can’t move in these. Where are my dark robes?”
“Oh that floppy old thing? It’s still drying.”
“I have two more spares.”
“Mai, it’s the Fire Burning Festival today, our biggest festival of the year. I bought these robes for you two especially…!”
“Look Aunt Mura, I appreciate the gesture, but I just don’t do… purple,” Mai blanched at her robes. To be fair, it was a rather deep shape of purple adorned with a simple floral pattern, and maybe a tad better than Azula’s sky blue robes, but still.
Aunt Mura folded her arms with a smile. “Let me repeat, it’s a festival today. Everyone will be dressed in their festive, colorful robes today. Unless you want to stand out in your Fire Nationnobilityrobes, I would suggest you get going.”
Mai sighed, realizing the woman had a point, and making sure she couldat least freely move her arms to pop her darts, gently tugged Azula along and gave her aunt a lazy backhand wave after her far too enthusiastic “have fun girls!”
The moment Mai stepped out she decided this was a bad idea. Aunt Mura lived in a small town, and from the looks of it, the entire population was out moving toward the prayer shrines. The throng of people on the street made her anxious, and she immediately gripped Azula’s arm.
“Well, take a gander around. Looks like peace and prosperity to me under your brother’s reign,” Mai remarked to Azula, not betraying a hint of worry.
It was dusk, and by the time they reached the forest path lined with rows of lit up stone lanterns on either side leading to the prayer shrine, the sun had set behind the trees. They were among other prayer seekers on the path, Mai keenly aware of a slow moving Azula next to her. She was wordless still, but somehow there was a lightness about her now. Maybe getting some air does help.
When they finally made it to the shrine, Mai looped her arm through Azula's and whispered in her ear. “Make a wish princess.”
She then clapped her own hands and closed her eyes in a prayer. She was quick and succinct, but her prayers were many. Azula, health and sanity. The two of them, may spirits direct their course. Aunt Mura, her parents and Tom-Tom, safety and immunity from her stupidity. Zuko, forgiveness, strength and... The moment Mai’s thoughts landed on Zuko, she felt a strange tingle on her spine, a familiar presence surrounding her. She snapped her eyes open immediately and whirled around, eyes scanning the crowd behind her, only to find an unfamiliar boy about her age staring at her intently. When she glanced back, he smiled warmly.
Azula’s first words in days was, “Zuko.”
Mai turned to look at her in shock. “What did you say?”
Azula’s eyes found hers, lucid and clear, but said nothing more.
Without another glance at the boy who was definitely not Zuko, Mai yanked Azula’s hand to leave the shrine. “Let’s get out of here.”
They got all the way down to the steps in their restrictive robes when a voice called out. “Hey…hey!”
Mai turned to see the boy from before. His hair was as shaggy as Zuko’s at his shaggiest, and there was a little girl by his side. The boy caught up to them in a couple of strides and smiled sheepishly.
“Your robe is very pretty.”
Mai arched an eyebrow.
“Uh, um, I’m Kenji, and this is my sister, Pika,” he rubbed the head of the little girl affectionately, who squealed ‘Pika Pika!’ in return. “You’re new to town right? I’ve never seen you guys. So I thought I’d introduce myself.”
Mai wonder just how small this town was while the boy endured the uncomfortable silence and twin pairs of glares. “Sorry, I mean, my family owns a knife shop in town, and I thought...”
“Knife?” Mai suddenly quipped in interest.
“Oh yeah, we make the best kitchen knives. Great for cutting, dicing, chopping, julienne, you name it! We even get clients from the Capital sometimes. Anyway, if you guys are ever looking for friends, just ask for the Uchimara knife shop and you’ll find me,” he bowed politely, and was hesitating to leave.
Watching “Kenji” turn his back gave Mai the strangest feeling. Her life as a noblewoman had been riddled with consequence, country and other people's political battles, but here was a nice boy in a nice town who just wanted to be friends. And wasn’t that just very inconsequential and nice? Wouldn’t it be funny if she grew up in a small town, a florist’s daughter, and was friends with the knife seller’s son. The way Zuko and she had been childhood friends, minus all that honor and prestige. Where would they be now?
“I’m Mai,” she regretted using her real name instantly. “And this is A—, Akela. We— won’t stick around long enough to make friends."
“Oh, is that right? Well, Mai, you never know right?”
When Zuko found Mai at her Aunt Mura’s flower shop through June’s last minute tip, he didn’t know what to think. It wasn’t that he was expecting a harried, stressed out fugitive exactly, but Mai had looked so calm, almost bored — that Zuko wondered if she was on the run with Azula at all. For a moment, he held onto the hope that everything was a misunderstanding and she just skipped out on a family vacation, but when he saw her dart upstairs to feed Azula, he was only more confused.
“They are terrible at being fugitives!” Zuko announced to Ty Lee. They had spent the day taking turns observing the two, looking from afar at the storefront and peering through windows at night.
“By that you mean they are awfully good at it right?”
“They are making a mockery of… of the rules! When I was on the run, I was starving and I smelled and had to resort to unethical means of survival that I’m ashamed of to this day!”
“Look, we’ve watched them for two days. It doesn’t look like Mai has some crazy scheme beyond nursing Azula back to health by bringing her to her aunt’s place. They are safe. They are fed. Azula’s not even acting psycho!"
Zuko had to admit Ty Lee had a point there. Azula did look better. Color had returned to her cheeks, and she dropped the crazed look in her eye. Mai was taking good care of his sister. Feeding her, clothing her, and at one time even bathing her. He often had to look away, falling back onto the roof where he was spying on them through the second floor window. He looked away partly out of propriety, and partly because it'd almost hurt to see Mai so attentive. He’d never fully seen this side of her before. Gone was her eye rolling and exasperation, in its place was efficiency, but also a strange tenderness. This was how you lose to Azula, time and time again, he thought wryly.
"So what do you want to do Fire Lord?”
The title burned his ears, but did remind him of his responsibilities back at home. He had to make a decision soon and get them all out of here. It looked like Mai had acted on her own. He had no idea how she was able to keep Azula so docile, but that was good. Maybe if he could corner her alone when she steps out, but then what? Also, even though Azula was calm, he just wasn’t sure about her. He still didn’t see her speak a word. If only he could get a closer look.
“Let’s watch them for another day, and then I’ll make a decision,” determined Zuko.
The next day turned out to be chaotic. They soon learned that it was the Fire Burning Festival, the biggest celebration of the year for the small town. All day Zuko and Ty Lee watched as Mai and her aunt worked frantically selling flowers to festival goers. When dusk finally came and Mai still hadn’t stepped out, Ty Lee gave a big yawn to say she was getting food for them. He nodded in gratitude, rubbing his own growling stomach.
Ty Lee’s enthusiastic “I’ll try to get some street snacks galore…!” barely faded when Mai suddenly stepped out. Zuko could barely recognize her. Mai had always been elegant, but this girl was so... feminine. She wore a deep purple robe with a gold sash around her waist. Her hair was done up unusually in one bun with wisps of hair framing her face. Her slender face was pale but agitation creased at the corner of her painted red lips while she surveyed the crowd around her. Zuko had to admit she looked beautiful when she hated the world like this.
When he finally managed to call out for Ty Lee, the acrobat had long disappeared into the crowds. No matter, this was his chance. Zuko shot toward Mai, only to stop when someone else stepped out. Zuko held his breath and stepped back. Azula wore an equally formal robe in sky blue. Her expression was serene, but her eyes looked faraway. Her movements were slightly faltered, like she was sleepwalking. The moment she was outside the door Mai had narrowed her eyes and gripped her tightly by the arm, looking much more bodyguard-like.
Zuko had no choice but to follow them. He didn’t want to confront them together in case he would startle them, but he made up his mind that he will try to get Mai alone before the end of the night. With that decision made, he put on his Blue Spirit mask. The Fire Burning Festival turned out to be a rather colorful holiday judging by the swirl of colors worn by everyone around them, so his black outfit actually made him stand out. His mask surprisingly helped him blend in a little better with a lot of little kids wearing masks. Though they were faraway from Caldera, he still couldn’t risk showing his very recognizable face.
Mai and Azula were walking very slowly. Their robes appeared to be slowing them down, so though their steps were quick, the strides were small. He kept a fair distance. He had gotten good at stealth in the three years of exile, but he couldn’t forget that he was dealing with warriors, elite warriors for that matter. Zuko wondered why Mai had brought Azula out after being so discreet for so long, and clearly looking a little nervous about it. Were they meeting someone, using the the festivals as a cloak? Azula’s allies…? Zuko swatted the thought away. No, he wasn’t going to go back and forth until he heard the truth from her.
He followed them for a good fifteen minutes until they reached forest opening with a single path, where a number of the townspeople also streamed in. The sun was fading. After a short walk, the path lit up with stone lanterns. People laid flowers on small wooden shrines along the path. When they finally reached the large temple, the crowd bottlenecked and Zuko had to squeeze up much closer to get a good look at Mai and Azula.
They all moved in inches until the two girls stood in front of the prayer gate, with a file of people waiting behind them. Zuko placed himself to the side beside a stone spirit guardian, staring intently at Mai as she clapped her hands in a prayer. Her brows were furrowed like she was wishing really hard. Azula on the other hand, was still staring blankly ahead, until her lips moved suddenly and Mai’s eyes snapped open. Zuko froze on the spot because for a moment it looked like Mai was looking straight at him, piercing through his mask, but then her gaze scattered away.
He swiveled behind the statue and collected his breath. That was close. When he circled around again, Mai and Azula were at the bottom of the steps, talking with a teenage boy holding hands with a little girl.
He caught the words, “your robe is very pretty” from the boy whose back was turned to him, and instantly felt his blood boil. Zuko was about to shoot out from behind the mossy stone lantern and unleash hell on the guy talking to his girlfriend when he stopped himself.
His girlfriend (? ! was she still his girlfriend technically?) looked so unamused, so bored as the dweeb rambled on and on that Zuko felt sorry for him! I mean, who does he think he was dealing with anyway? Zuko grinned stupidly. First of all, if he wanted to flirt, he’d better come up with something better than “your robe is very pretty,” which is such a sorry way of saying “girl you fly” or actually just admiring the intricate patterns on a well-made robe. You’ve got to be clear with women! Also the way he was parading the little girl playing big brother, patting her head. That was just cringe!
But then Zuko watched in horror as Mai spoke up. Her eyes piqued with interest. Then when the boy finally turned to walk away (ugh, he’s good-looking, dweebish but good-looking, ughh!), Mai had the strangest look on her face, a mixture of sadness and longing, before she spoke a string of words quickly that Zuko didn’t even pick up because he couldn’t get over that look on her face. A look that made Zuko feel like he was losing her all over again.
Zuko slumped hard against a tree and took a deep breath in to calm himself. He was a Fire Lord now. He reminded himself. He couldn’t go around sprouting jealous rage fire anymore. He was different from that boy. Who was probably nice, from this nice town, who had a nice family, a nice, non-homicidal little sister, and nice, manageable responsibilities. Zuko had the world to worry about now. He didn’t have the luxury of acting like a cranky teenage boy. His responsibility right now was to bring Mai and Azula home.
Of course, when he looked back, they had disappeared. He cursed and moved swiftly through the crowds, eyes searching expertly and quickly. When he cleared the path out of the shrine and couldn’t find them them. He leapt onto a rooftop to get a bird’s eye view. Festival vendors lined the streets and there were five lit up paths below him. They couldn’t have gotten that far from him. Zuko squinted his eyes for Azula’s bright blue robe, and kept his feet moving for better vantage points. That was when a pair of knives streaked past his shoulder, leaving a silvery glint in the night.
Zuko yelped, ducked, then swung forward to face Mai.
She lost the obi belt. Her robe now hung wide open bellowing with the breeze, revealing a white cotton slip underneath that unfortunately for him, presumably gave her better access to her knives. She still wore the wooden clogs that must make standing on the roof a pain, but overall Zuko had to admit her getup looked pretty fearsome under the moonlight.
Mai narrowed her eyes and assumed a fight stance. “I can feel your anger from a mile away.”
“You’re kidding me,” Zuko gaped. Was it possible Mai could feel the raptures of his jealousy? “How…?”
“Azula saw you, you idiot. You should consider updating your Blue Spirit mask. It’s as conspicuous as your scar now. Don’t be such an amateur."
“Yeah I know, I didn’t have time to research another spirit to have another mask made. I have a hard time finding another one that could capture my spirit and outlook as well with just as impactful of a design,” Zuko sighed, "Where is Azula?”
“Tied up somewhere while I deal with you,” then without a word she moved forward to strike him, using her hands like blades.
He ducked, and swiveled, and crouched, and sidestepped. “Wait, Mai! We need to talk!”
She didn’t stop. Her hands were clean stabs near his face that reminded him more of Ty Lee’s flourishes than her knife throwing moves. So in one move he sideswiped her and slammed her back against his chest, then grabbed her by the wrists for one moment. “Listen! I know you don’t want to really hurt me because you're not even using your knives!”
Mai’s body slacked against him, hair brushing his lips, and he almost groaned from a mouthful her scent, but he knew he had only a moment to convince her before she moved again. “Listen, for whatever reason you’re doing this. I trust you—“ he said without thinking, and in that moment when Mai turned to look at him, he knew that it was true. She didn’t betray him. He could trust her.
But the exchange was cut short when Zuko saw Azula appear from other edge of the roof. She was barefoot, clad in only the thin cotton white slip, and she was leering at him. Zuko pushed Mai behind him.
“Azula...” He called out as kindly as he could, and said slowly. “I am not going to hurt you.”
Azula began running toward him at maximum speed, the crazed look back in her eyes. Her hands trailed behind her in closed fists like she was powering up for fire like so many times before. Then everything happened at once. Azula spread out one hand, the sound of a fire blast cracked in the sky, Mai’s “no, Zuko—” sailed into the air as well as her own body, just as a shot of fire blasted from Zuko’s own right hand.
The next thing he knew, fireworks filled the sky in thundering booms as he watched Mai burn before his eyes, and then he was paralyzed by five chi stabs to his body.
Chapter 5: Debt
I got punched in the face the other day (I’m not going to say how because that will be much less exciting), but it certainly made me relate to physical pain more, so that’s cool, and I had to add a few more sentences about pain, but overall given the universe is magic, and burn wounds must be all too common, I imagine Fire Nation healers will be much more proficient / magical than our emergency rooms. Thanks for reading. Means the world.
When Mai opened her eyes for the first time, the pain was so excruciating she couldn’t stop the tears. At least four hands held her down, and a number of voices tried to calm her. The burn was all over her body. She smelled it in the air, in her hair, in her skin, and in the fear twisting inside herself. Her last thought before fainting again was, who would have thought sad little Mai cared this much about being alive.
When Mai opened her eyes for the second time, it was to coat of salve and numbness on the right side of her body, then the onset of agony again that made her hiss and groan and shout. After she bit down on her lips and squeezed out the tears hard did Ty Lee’s big watery eyes come into focus.
“Mai, thank god,” Ty Lee clutched her left hand.
“Please tell me I’m dead,” said Mai.
Mai didn’t believe Ty Lee would start bawling, almost as much as she was definitely going to forget that she had been crying herself.
“That’s not funny at all, Mai.”
Mai sighed, the asked. “Azula?”
“She’s fine,” Ty Lee stopped crying and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Also fine,” Ty Lee hiccuped.
“You’re going to be fine,” Ty Lee breathed. “You caught the tail end of Zuko's flame, so it wasn't as strong. You're lucky it didn’t lick your face, but the entire right side of your body from arm to leg...”
“Ah,” Mai intoned.
“We’re lucky there was a healing ward nearby and a crowd of people rushed you. The healers swear by their salve, but then you went into shock. How do you feel now?”
Lucky they were still in Fire Nation territory. Every Fire Nation citizen was trained in dealing with fire emergencies and open burn wounds. If she was still alive, Mai knew that aside from a few bad scars, she should be all right. “Stunningly awful, but I’ll live. Where is Azula and Zuko?”
“Chi blocked them both. Azula is in the other room with Aunt Mura. She was… distressed.”
“Screamed, kicked, if she had fire she would have burned down the whole town. But we gave her a sedative and she’s calmed down by now, asleep.”
“My fault,” Mai closed her eyes. So Azula was back to her psychotic, destructive self. “Zuko?”
“Uh…” Ty Lee hesitated. "I shot up a royal distress flare on the roof. By now he should have been whisked back to the capital. He didn’t know about the security because they’re really just members of The White Lotus in town, but they had communication from Iroh if anything bad happens to take him back right away. He might be pissed he wasn’t informed about this.”
“So you came with Zuko?” Mai frowned. "What does he want?”
Ty Lee looked close to strangling her. “What does he want?! He wants to know what you want! We’ve been tailing you for three days and I leave for a minute and Zuko and Azula have both gone berserk. What happened on that roof?!”
“Let’s see. I found out Zuko was following us. I fought him on the roof to get some answers. Azula appeared. I think the crazy version. Zuko said ‘I’m not going to hurt you’ to her, then blasted fire at her. I threw myself in front of Azula because I never learn my lessons.”
“Ugh, why,” Ty Lee slapped a hand on her face.
“History keeps on repeating itself in different permutations.”
“It doesn’t make sense. Zuko wouldn’t hurt Azula on purpose. First you left with Azula without a word, and now Zuko just blasted fire at his non-firebender sister… The two of you are bonkers!”
“If it’s any consolation. I don’t think he did it on purpose. I think he saw Azula in her best Agni Kai reenactment, and he just forgot, or maybe he just doesn’t know how to let his defenses down around her, or maybe he thought Azula made the festival fireworks happen,” Mai shrugged her shoulders, then grimaced from the pain of moving her arm.
“Wait, if you believe your boyfriend this much, why did you run away in the first place?” Ty Lee barked. “His aura went from bright gold to like, a gray grayer than your gray in a day! Did you stop to think what you leaving without a word would do to him?”
Mai heaved another great sigh. “Look, maybe I panicked? Can a girl catch a break? I wasn’t planning on bringing Azula on my journey of self-discovery. She just looked pitiful in the cell all fireless and wide-eyed. All I wanted to do was get away from them!”
“Journey— what journey? Are you saying you were really planning to leave anyway? Zuko said you might be, and I defended you!” Ty Lee sputtered. “You couldn’t even tell me?”
“You could say both decisions were… impulsive.”
“Look Mai, you didn’t see him. Zuko almost, I don’t know, it looked like he almost imploded from within when he found out, but then he controlled himself. He’s different. He’s stronger, but he still needs you, especially now, and you can’t keep beating him up for no reason.”
“The jerk who broke my heart and ripped my pride?”
“Which won’t happen again, but this isn’t about him anymore. It’s about me and I’ve realized my happiness can’t be build on Azula’s destruction. I can’t be between them. I need to get past Azula and Zuko and my parents and find my own path. You of all people should understand.”
At Boiling Rock, when Ty Lee had made her choice to join the Kyoshi warriors, Mai had to give it to her. For all her exhausting affection, Ty Lee was actually the real loner of the group. You could toss her to the side of the road in some random city, and the girl might not even notice. She was a bonafide survivor. Mai, on the other hand, had never escaped the opulent wings of her parents, or Azula, or the emotional toil that came with being with Zuko. Yes, Ty Lee of all the people should understand that Mai just wanted to escape.
“Then tell him.”
Mai lifted her eyes to look at Ty Lee warily.
“You know, I always thought you were tough for being able to break things off with Zuko whenever he acts out of line. But now I think you’re just afraid. So end it, and tell him, and stop running away. It’s not like you to do things like this. You’re methodical. You plan. You consider the consequences.”
Mai balked from Ty Lee’s words. All her life she’d been those things, until she decided saving Zuko’s life was more important than any methods, or plans, or consequences. Yet acting on her emotions had only opened her up to a flood of feelings, that of fear, loss, and guilt. At least she had sarcasm left. “Fine, I have no intention of being a fugitive on the run with a busted arm and leg, a crazy princess, and a walking shrink anyway. Let’s take the first boat back… well, after I can move.”
Ty Lee widened her eyes. “Wait, you want to go back to Caldera?”
“Yes, I think throwing ourselves at the feet of the Fire Lord and begging for forgiveness is our best case scenario. This is getting out of hand. I don’t want to get Aunt Mura involved, or for you to make a habit of being a chronic traitor, or for Azula to be chi-blocked, or sedated, or muffled or tied down,” Mai huffed.
“And Azula—? What will happen to her?”
Mai frowned. She really had made a big mistake by breaking her out. Now after all this havoc, Azula had to go back to the imperial prison. But hadn’t she seemed a little better the last couple days. If Zuko hadn’t appeared and snapped her into a frenzy again, couldn’t she regain some thread of sanity? Was Azula worth saving even? Why was she even thinking about saving Azula? What was there left to save?
Mai traded a meaningful look with Ty Lee, memories and torn feelings a flood between them. Mai knew in this moment, Ty Lee may be the only person in the world who understood their tangled bond with Azula. It was a bond twisted by the type of camaraderie and cruelty only children were capable of, and undeniably made them who they were. If they were to cast Azula aside, it would be like forgetting something deep within themselves, the cowardly part that capitulated, that acquiesced, that depended on it.
“Its gotta be us. One last time.” Mai stared wide-eyed at the ceiling.
Ty Lee eyed her carefully. “What about your journey of self-discovery?”
“Can’t, can’t give her up to rot.”
Ty Lee crossed her arms, then nodded into her knees, as if resigning to a fate or karma bigger than herself, and finally said. “Maybe not. I might have an idea…”
Zuko made sure he would be alone when he received them. No Aang, not the rest of his friends, not even uncle, who he was still angry with for that White Lotus rescue fiasco, but all that didn’t matter as the doors to his throne room opened. He’d been wrecked since the incident on the roof. The only thing that stopped him from borrowing Appa the next day was getting a note from Ty Lee in the morning with the words: I’m sorry. Both of them all right. We’re coming. Wait. Please.” The word “please” underlined twice in clear admonishment, as if she just knew he was already on his way.
Zuko drafted five different versions of an explanation that ended with "tell her I’m sorry” and sent the sixth that didn’t have anything except his imperial seal to denote that her letter was received. When finally a week later he received word of their return, and Ty Lee and a very much alive Mai was walking toward him, Zuko finally let out the breath he’d been holding in.
Thank Agni, he thought, studying Mai as she walked forward, slowly, but on her own. Zuko found he couldn’t quite meet her in the eye. Instead he dismissed the guards who escorted the two girls, and closed his own eyes for a moment to shut out that horrifying image of her, burning from his own fire. By the time his eyes found them, the two girls were kneeling with their hands and foreheads touching the floor. The last time Zuko had kneeled like that was when he begged his own father for forgiveness before half of his face was burned off.
So he stared, unblinking. Mai’s shiny hair spilling onto the floor, and he wondered how once the thought of anyone so much as hurting a single strand of her hair would set him off, and how now he was the one —not Azula, not war, but he— who hurt her.
He called her name, and when not a strand of her hair moved, and the silence consumed them, Ty Lee's words struck across the throne room,“Our deepest regret for attacking you, Fire Lord. It shouldn’t have happened.”
Ty Lee’s strange, formal voice sounded far away and nonsensical to him, so Zuko addressed Mai. “Please, I saw you burn.”
Slowly, Mai walked her hands back gingerly and raised her head, meeting his eyes but not looking into them. Her face was ivory and perfect, not a blemish to be found, but Zuko caught how carefully she moved. Most people wouldn’t be able to detect a hint of distress when Mai puts on her best mask. Hell, Zuko normally couldn’t in his frequently rattled states, but in the quiet of the nightwhile listening to his own harried breathing, heknewshe was in pain. He could tell that the right side of her body was off balance.
But Mai didn't budge, and replied as cooly as the brightly lit moon outside. “I’m fine,” and with a shift in tone as sharp as her blade, she nipped his concern and moved the conversation elsewhere. “Azula is back now in your custody. After Ty Lee chi-blocked you, she also chi-blocked Azula. She’s in the healing ward. The last week has been strenuous on her body, and her mind remains... in conflict. It was my reckless, treasonous actions that have greatly exacerbated the situation and brought havoc into your new reign. I accept all responsibility and applicable punishment,” and with that Mai’s forehead kissed the ground again.
Zuko was still recalibrating from Mai’s aloofness when Ty Lee gaped. “Look, before we hand out punishments, we have a real crisis on our hands. We’re back at square one with Azula, possibly worse.”
“I agree,” Zuko grabbed onto Ty Lee’s warmth like a lifeline, blurting to Mai. “Regardless of your intentions, in my brief observation of Azula under your care, my sister seemed better until I showed up, and triggered something in her again.”
“Exactly! My conversations with Mai has led me to believe that Azula’s conditions may improve faster in a non-institutional facility outside of the capital,” Ty Lee followed.
“What do you mean by ‘non-institutional facility outside?” Zuko asked thoughtfully. "And also, get up both of you."
“Right. I have a very specific proposal,” Ty Lee shot up gracefully then helped Mai up, whose forehead creased with effort. “I've talked with the Kyoshi Warriors about this, and we think Azula can rehabilitate at Kyoshi Island. The warriors and I will personally oversee her security, and we can get her the best professional help while removing her from the memories of Fire Nation, and giving her a chance at normal life should she be ready. It also helps that it’s an island with very minimal outside contact.”
Zuko’s brows furrowed deeper and deeper as he watched Mai rose with effort. She was clearly grimacing from pain and trying to not show it. “Mai—” he croaked.
When she looked at him with eyes of steel, he knew he would still have to wait, in private, and redirected his sentence. “—what do you think?”
Mai was fully upright now, her spine straight and neck long, her words strong and crisp. “I think you have two choices Fire Lord. The most important thing to Azula is power and pride. Ridding her of her firebending is stripping her of the very source of her power and pride, and you know that's worse than death. I suggest you end her.”
“Mai!” Ty Lee cried.
Mai continued quietly. “But if you’re an optimist who can swallow his own pride, and is the kind of person who believe his crazy, psychotic sister still has a shred of humanity left. Her mind is in tatters. You wouldn’t be able to keep her in the imperial jail. You’ll end up having to put her in an insane asylum, and I’m telling you that won’t work here. I don’t know whether Ty Lee’s proposal will work, but it’s a start, and it’s smart.”
“Not letting my sister face the error of her ways in a public trial for my people?”
“She’s fourteen and unstable, Zuko, you of all the people should know better. Your people doesn’t need to see a fourteen year old girl flogged for the sins of her father and grandfather! Let her find a way to pay for her sins when she’s better.”
She used his name for the first time instead of his title, but he doesn’t know why he kept on bristling on the outside, like a small lost boy about to prepare himself for a loss. “You really care about her, don’t you,” Zuko asked quietly.
Mai snorted. “Doesn’t matter how I feel about her, but a good question to ask yourself. You’re the big brother. Your job was never to be afraid of her. That was our job. Your job was to take her taunts, twist them with a joke, and make balloon animals out of them.”
“Uhhh, guys,” Ty Lee laughed nervously. “It’s strange but your auras are a very tantalizing red right now. Which besides anger, is also the color of passion and deep sexual tension and want. So you think you’re speaking from your head, but you might be less rational than—”
Two sets of glare thrown like daggers later, she cleared her throat. “I think what Mai means by smart is removing Azula from here is removing a source of danger for Fire Nation at its heart, and severing her from her network of potential allies. Politically, diplomatically, it’s also a powerful alliance with the Kyoshi.”
“I doubt their people will be so glad to host Fire Nation’s most dangerous woman,” said Zuko.
“Azula’s reputation doesn’t really extend beyond the Fire Nation military yet, and what better way to contain a dangerous woman with help from many dangerous women? The Kyoshi will want to help, Zuko. Believe it or not, people want to share the burden of peace.”
Zuko scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Right, we can send additional security to ensure everyone’s safety so it’s not just on the warriors.”
Then Mai’s words came like a crash, when Zuko heard it, he almost broke down and laughed.
“I will go too. On my life, I will keep her secure,” said Mai. “That will be my atonement.”
Ty Lee stared at Mai in disbelief. If the two girls had discussed what they were going to say to him, this was clearly not part of the strategy Ty Lee knew about. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mai.”
“I’m not. You know it has to be us. Azula wouldn’t be able to escape if she tried. We know her because we’ve existed as her shadow. So let us repay her.”
“Not the point. Your place is with Zuko!”
Zuko was just grateful he could string together a full sentence together. Just in case, he turned his back to Fire Lord and stammered. “Ty Lee… I… I need to talk to uncle about this, and tomorrow… well, tomorrow with Suki and the Kyoshi. We’ll have to hash out a more precise plan, and sign things,” he was exhausted, as if three days of no sleep finally caught up to him, when he turned around to Ty Lee. “Could you give Mai and I a moment alone?”
Ty Lee looked at him like she was on the verge of tears, but she backed away in a bow.
Zuko caught Mai’s left arm in Ty Lee’s place, then gently pressed her head to his shoulder.“Don’t do it, Mai, not after we won,” he said.
Mai tensed for a moment, “Have we won?” then sank her weight into him. "It has to be me.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt her.She ran at me like all those times before, and I reacted by reflex.”
“So that’s what happened?”
“I swear it. It was a mistake.”
“I thought as much,” she simpered.
He stared at her in disbelief. “You believe me?”
“The moment you said you trusted me, I trust you too,” Mai relented. “But I guess that doesn’t take away the damage on all sides.” Zuko looked panicked, so she stressed. “I’ll be okay.”
“Let me look at it,” he reached for her right arm.
She backed away. “The healers looked at it already.”
“Mai, please—” he insisted.
“Look—I said no.”
“I need to see what I’ve done!” he shouted suddenly.
“And that’s exactly why I won’t—!“ she pulled away from him completely and nearly tottered to the floor, an audible cry escaping her lips.
He shouted her name while steadying her. A number of expletives left her mouth as they struggled.
“Stop, stop,” he said finally, holding her still. “Stop hurting yourself.”
“You’re the one hurting me!”
Zuko gritted his teeth then carefully placed her on his throne when she continued.
“I’m not sitting on your throne, Zuko!”
“You need to sit down somewhere!”
“I’m not an invalid yet. Let me get my bearings, or ask your retainers for a normal chair!”
“I don’t want to see servants right now!”
Zuko decided the throne room was the worst place to have a conversation with her. There were no chairs besides an uncomfortable throne, and no light except rows of fire lamps, and no air except the air cooked by the fire, and no words that doesn’t get swallowed up in the large, austere chamber. He would have to redo the throne room soon. Task number 399.
“Look, let’s get out of here. Can you walk with me a little?” he offered her his hand, and maybe it was because they were who they were, with an innate understanding of the importance of being earnest, they walked for five long minutes in utter silence until they found a balcony overlooking the city and the moon. More importantly, there was a also a wide, stone bench.
Mai slid onto the bench and Zuko asked if she wanted to talk about what happened and why she left.
Mai shook her head matter of factly and said she’d rather look at the moon.
Zuko thought if she could, she would have folded her arms behind her head and that their night would end in this prolonged, excruciating silence. He looked at the moon, it was orange and heavy and gorgeous and terrible. “Fine,” he muttered and they sat in silence together.
When they first started officially dating during his brief rendezvous back at the Fire Nation, they often made out in place of talking. It was partly, or mostly, hormones, but as he grew more enraged and unsettled, the silence stretched longer. He was bad at silence, but Mai was very good at it. He thought she used it as a weapon, to test his patience, to read him, but finally he realized it was out of fear to bury the words she didn’t want to say.
He hated the silence, and broke it by not talking about them a moment later. “You really think Azula has a chance?”
She gave him a sideways glance. By then the moon looked a little thinner. “We will have to get professionals too, but maybe... losing firebending can be the best thing to happen to Azula.”
“Who knows, maybe now she’s finally free to be herself."
“Why? Is that what you want? Freedom from me?” he snapped.
“Not everything is about you, or us, right?” Mai said, “I won’t be of any use to you eventually like this. You’ll tire of me. You’ve had to leave your nation, your family, and me to learn to be yourself. I’ve got to grow into myself too.”
“You don’t know that, and I didn’t have a choice in any of it. I was forced to leave,” Zuko turned to look at her, eyes flashing.
“You did, when it mattered. I’m not talking about the banishment. I’m talking when you made the decision to join the Avatar. I have a choice too now, and that’s why I have to take it,” she sat up straighter to look at him too. They were close enough to butt heads when she whispered. "You can’t be the only thing I care about anymore, Zuko.”
“Clearly, I’m not the only one you care about,” he replied.
"I was leaving anyway. Azula was not part of the plan, but it is my last debt to both of you.”
So there it was, and it dawned on him. “So when you came to me at the coronation…”
“It was as much as a kiss as your goodbye note was,” she explained.
His dug his fingers hard against the stone bench. “What if I tell you despite all my mistakes, I need you now more than ever? That I need you more than Azula needs you! You don’t think I deserve a say in any of this?”
“Welcome to my world.”
“Your world? You’re right. I have no idea what’s going on in your world! Ty Lee told me at Boiling Rock you said you love me. Well, do you?”
“I do,” She replied without missing a beat.
“So isn’t this what you want? Us? Together?”
This time, her answer came with hesitance “Saving you back there... took a lot of what I had. I feel like I’ve paid my debt for love, and now I’m tired and insecure, but mostly I’m just really tired. Does that make sense?”
Zuko looked away. “Why do you keep saying that? Debt to Azula. Debt to me.”
“Because that’s how I feel about my favorite siblings.”
“Tell me to walk away, Mai,” Zuko said. “Tell me to walk away because you’re tired, because of some twisted idea of guilt and debt, because you don’t think we can grow into ourselves, together!”
“You’ve always been stronger and smarter than you think,” she said.
“I need you.”
“We should break up.”
After feeling like the moon had dropped out of sky and wrapped her muddy, cold hands around him, after more silence and staring at Mai looking down at her own pale hands, after realizing his ragged breath sent sparks in the air, Zuko walked away like a ghost zigzagging through the imperial palace, and just like the time when he was the small boy who found out his mother had really gone away, listened for the sound of something important disappear.
Chapter 6: Alone Again
Ugh, no notes, I'm in the midst of NaNoWriMo, oh agni.
AZULA & ZUKO
After Zuko did two slow, windy loops through the palace and servants and guards were starting to shoot him looks of concern, he found a quiet spot and wondered what the old Zuko would do. The old Zuko would probably take it out on the two stone lion-dogs with his bending, or worse, his bare fists, but the old Zuko was no longer an option for him. He’d travelled too far and even thinking about the old Zuko made him tired.
Mai had said she was tired. He was tired too, but he didn’t have the luxury of stopping anymore. Even if she was leaving him, he could only go on.
The new Zuko did a number of things before the night’s end instead. Azula was first. He hadn’t seen her with Mai and Ty Lee, and when he did go to see her at the healing ward and everyone shuffled away, he only looked at her from afar. Azula was sleeping peacefully. By peacefully, it meant her face wasn’t arranged into an expression fit for confident scheming and sibling struggle. Instead, the healers had obviously cleaned her up, and Azula looked like she was finally resting. Zuko was amazed to see how young she looked at rest, how nearly like his younger sister.
He thought about what Ty Lee and Mai said, and wondered after all they’ve done to each other, if they’ve truly gone beyond repair. Were they the victims of their parents’ and some kind of structural distrust built into the power vortex of the royal family? Could he have done more for her? For them? Ever since his banishment Zuko had thought of only himself. How to regain his honor. How to prove his worth. He’d never had to worry about Azula, only fear her, because she was the one born lucky, she was the strong one. What if he had been less insecure about himself, and actually saw her as, well, a real person? Was that the kind of strange relationship Mai and Ty Lee had with Azula. That within the grip and control, there was flashes of something human?
Mai and Ty Lee’s betrayal had clearly broken something in the indomitable Azula. Zuko saw it clear as day before their agni kai. That was why it had to be them to leave with her. Zuko understood that now. He might have insulted her, distrusted her, hated her, tried to kill her (to be fair, mostly in self-defense), but he’d never gotten into her skin, because they were always worlds apart.
Things were a lot easier when your sister was just evil.
Before he left, he took her cold hand in his, and bent the smallest of flame of warmth that hovered just above her palm before it disappeared into the night, and darkness fell on Azula again.
KATARA & ZUKO
He went to Katara next. He must have looked awful because when Katara opened the door and saw him, she looked so disconcerted she asked right out if he needed a healing. He swore that ever since she’d forgiven him, she’d gone straight from threatening him to being deeply concerned for him, all the time.
“No, I don’t need a healing,” he waved it off impatiently, then stopped himself mid-sentence and stared at her and wondered if besides physical ailments, could Water Tribe healers detect heartbreaks? Better yet, could they heal heartbreaks? Could they maybe, say, erase certain memories or persons? Not that he wanted that, but maybe just for a night so he could sleep.
“Uh, are you all right Zuko?” Katara asked after the silence had become uncomfortable.
“Yeah,” Zuko replied and thought, but even if Katara could fix hearts, he just didn’t feel right confiding into her. So he bulldozed his way to the point. “I don’t need a healing, but listen, I really need you to look at someone else…”
He said Azula’s name. He said Ty Lee. Then he said, with emphasis, that Mai had been burned by firebending. Would she kindly look at her because she was better than even their royal healers.
“A firebender burned your girlfriend?!”
He was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, and as he winced from the sting of “girlfriend,” he explained that no worries it was just him. When Katara looked even more white faced after that, he added that oh no worries, it was just an accident.
“It’s complicated. I don’t want to talk about it,” he concluded miserably then blurted. “Also she’s not my girlfriend anymore."
“Oh,” Katara’s mouth hung open as realization dawned. “Oh no… Are you okay?”
"I don’t want to talk about that either."
“Ah, well um, I’ll go first thing in the morning. You can count on me.”
“I’m sorry to make you do rounds like this,” Zuko bowed.
“You saved my life, and we’re friends, Zuko. I’m happy to help,” reassured Katara, then before closing her door, she said. "Listen, I think you should try to talk about it with somebody, sometimes, okay?”
Five minutes after she closed her door, Katara heard another knock and opened the door to see Zuko again.
“Sorry, delayed reaction. Um, is Aang around?” Zuko asked her sheepishly.
AANG & ZUKO
Zuko had no idea how Aang found the meditation room. He wanted to show his friends around the palace, but with Mai and Azula’s disappearance right after coronation, it had been on his back burner. The meditation room was next to the sparring room and separated into two spaces. On the one end, a darker, cave-like room burning with ever-fire, a holy fire blessed by the sages that never died. A fire that gave firebenders their strength, focus, and clarity during meditation. On the other end beyond a heavy sliding door, an airier room opened up to a garden with a large weeping willow and small pond.
Aang was under the willow tree, eyes closed in mediation. Zuko walked over and dropped into the lotus position behind him and tried to meditate. Though he was known for being cranky, as an elite warrior, he'd always been able to slip into that space of focus to channel his fire. What he learned from the Firebending Masters with Aang taught him that letting go was a deeper way of unlocking power and peace within himself. For the life of him though, he couldn’t find the rhythm either in his usual perseverance or supposed newfound peace, and it was only a minute later when a smiling Aang turned to him.
“Hi Zuko!” Aang said cheerfully. Momo bounced on his shoulder. “I can hear your brain fighting itself I think.”
Zuko looked back at him dully. “Hey,” he croaked.
“Uh, can I help you?”
“What happens when you meditate? As the Avatar?”
“You mean entering a deep state of stillness and heightened awareness but simultaneous achieving an ease of being and freedom from thought?”
“No, I mean, do you talk to other Avatars from the past? And ask for advice?”
“Oh yeah, all the time.”
“That must be nice. To get advice from great masters.”
“You’d be surprised. Some of them are pretty great, but some of them are not so great at all. They are just human like us, with great power and great responsibility. Some of them rise to the occasion. Others not. I wonder which end I fall? If I disappeared for 100 years and the world went to war. Does coming back and ending it make up for it? You think I’ll get a neutral in my performance review?” Aang scratched his head and laughed uneasily, “Anyway, I can say the same for their advice. Some are useful, others are just voices in your head. Honestly, sometimes I talk to them so it doesn’t feel like I’m just talking at myself. Oh, I also talk to Momo a lot.”
Zuko watched as Aang alternatively fidgeted, laughed, scratched his bald head, tickled Momo, threw Momo in the air, did a long stretch during his rambling and wondered if he should have gone to Sokka instead. Sokka, who would have spent fifteen minutes making fun of him first before saying something useful.
“I wish none of you would leave,” he said solemnly. "Do you or your Avatars have any advice for important people leaving?” Zuko wanted to talk to Aang about Mai when he realized it wasn’t just Mai. They were all leaving him. His mother had left. His uncle was leaving. Mai was leaving. The bumbling child in front of him was leaving. All his friends were leaving. Even his sister and father, while complicated, were in effect leaving. He was alone again.
“Ah, someone very wise told me letting go is the only way to hold on.”
Zuko thought of his meditation and his fire again, and how letting go of his anger made him more powerful. “I think I understand that.”
“I’m not sure I did. In fact, I still have the scar to show for not understanding it.”
“So your advice is to not let go?”
“My advice is other people’s advice, even great sages, isn’t going to help you. They’re just voices. You need to find what’s right for you. What I can say for us, for our friendship, is there is no letting go. The moment you decided your destiny was to join us and teach me Firebending, we became apart of who you are. I will always be apart of your identity. The nature of our friendship may change, may stretch and grow, but never really gone. Don’t you think?”
Zuko looked down at his fidgeting hands. He wanted to say something to the effect of, becoming friends with all of you, and those days on the run, had been one of the happiest moments of his life, and that if he could, he would rewind time and keep on repeating it, because what’s ahead felt like a harrowing and lonely place. He didn’t.
“But you’re allowed to miss and allowed to grieve for change. You get me?” said Aang.
“I will. I will miss all of you,” Zuko bowed. “Thank you for everything you’ve taught me.”
Aang rushed to stop his bowing. “The last time I checked, you’re my firebending teacher. So unless you want to get into a bowing fest, what do you say we do the Dancing Dragon one more time to celebrate the great times!”
“No thanks, Aang.”
“Aw c’mon! No one else knows it!” Aang sprung up and began some stances.
“Aang, Mai broke up with me and she’s leaving with Azula,” Zuko said evenly, as if slicing the air in half.
“Oh,” Aang froze. “Ah. Um. You know, I think maybe what you need is not all this talk about letting go and holding on. I think you need something else...”
THE GAANG & ZUKO
(Five teenagers seen in a circle around the ever-fire, dramatically reading in turn from Li Bai’s “Bring in the Wine." They each take a swig of wine after their part, except Aang, who seemed more drunk without wine.)
Aang: See how the water of the Yellow River move out of heaven!*
Entering the ocean, never to return!
Katara: See how lovely locks in bright mirrors at high chambers,
Though silken-black at morning, have changed by night to snow!
Toph: Cook a sheep, kill a cow, whet the appetite,
And make me, of three hundred bowls, one long drink!
Sokka: “Bring in the wine!
Let your cups never rest!
Let me sing you a song!
Let your ears attend!”
Zuko (who does not look at the book because he’s reciting from heart):
My flower-dappled horse!
My furs worth a thousand!
I’ll hand them in exchange for good wine,
And we’ll drown the woes of ten thousand ages!
(Sokka highfives Zuko as Toph fell to the ground laughing)
Sokka: Oh hell yeah!
I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this guy.
All he does is write about drinking or being alone.
Let’s see what other drinking songs he’s got!
Aang: Wait wait, before we get to another one, what do you guys say to me and Zuko do the Dancing Dragon one more time!
(Everyone erupted into cheers and claps except Zuko)
Zuko: Nooooo, Aang.
*Bring in the Wine by Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Li Bai, should be written around 730s. Chinese poetry in translation is generally truly awful. I’ve chosen a translation with minor edits from Poetry Nook (https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/bringing-wine-0). Rhymes are lost, but it's more colloquial.
Mai was not at all awake when there was a knock on the door. Mornings were for the weak, and she had no business with the weak. When she dragged herself up in her sleeping robes, hissing lightly from her burns and exhaustion, her guest wasn’t who she expected.
“Katara,” she said warily. Mai wasn’t sure who she wanted to expect instead. Ty Lee, to beg her not to leave, even though she’d already thought of 101 ways they could amuse themselves while guarding Azula. Iroh, to have tea, make a better acquaintance with her and read between the lines. Zuko, to stare and sputter at her. Heck, even the boomerang peasant or the Avatar or the blind girl to glower or smile or punch her.
Not Katara, whose eyes flushed with concern and compassion. Not Katara, who looked equally wary now. “Sorry, did I wake you? It’s ten so I thought…”
“It’s fine. I’ve been awake,” which wasn’t a lie. She could really use that punch now. It would be a lie to say she didn’t have feelings, that she didn’t spend the night replaying her breakup with Zuko, and that last time she checked it wasn't ten at night. “What do you want?”
“Zuko made me swear to have a look at you before we all leave.”
Mai raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been looked at by the royal healers.”
“I’m better than the royal healers.” There was heat in Katara’s voice and for a moment, Mai was reminded of Zuko. The same stubbornness. The same singular focus. The same too big heart. The same cluelessness.
She sighed and muttered a tired "all right,” holding the door open to let Katara in while briskly loosening her robe without a word. By the time Katara closed the door, Mai’s bare, burned right arm, hip, and leg were on full display.
Katara squeaked a very small “oh!” and Mai wasn’t sure whether if it was from the extent of her injuries, or the state of her nakedness. Either way, Katara recovered admirably, started taking out her dressing slowly when she grimaced. “You should have come to me earlier. This will scar.”
“I don’t mind carrying scars from Zuko,” said Mai moodily.
Katara looked scared. “Uh... well, let me at least speed up the healing.”
“Joke,” Mai corrected.
Katara managed to look more uncomfortable with a forced chuckle. “I’ll do my best.”
Then Katara took a deep breath, drew water from her waterskin and seem to push the water inside Mai. Mai felt a deep coolness spreading underneath the skin on the right side of her body that gelled then jabbed, then gelled again for a good minute. When Katara was done, she was breathing hard as she gently sent the splash of water to evaporate in the air. Mai’s blisters were largely gone, the pain lessened, only a layer of blotched scars remained.
Mai stared at her arm. “You really are awfully useful to have around. Definitely better than a firebender.”
Katara’s expression was focused and determined on something other than her compliments. Here it comes, thought Mai. “You don’t need dressing on it anymore, just let it air out,” then... “Listen, i don’t know the extent of your relationship with Zuko.”
“Nor do I know yours.”
Katara gaped. “Zuko is my friend, and so by extension, are you, and friend to friend, I think he could use all the love and support he could get right now. So are you sure you should leave?”
“If you’re so concerned for him, why don’t you and Aang stay?”
“What? That’s ridiculous. Aang is the Avatar. Besides everything he has to do with the Air Nomads, he’s got to be free to dart around different nations to resolve conflict, and, do Avatar things. He also can’t be seen having that much of an allegiance to the Fire Lord for neutrality’s sake...”
“All right, why don’t you stay then? You can put out fires, heal people, maybe you can advise Zuko, or be his bodyguard. He’s fire, and you’re water. I’m sure it’ll work out.”
“Mai, it’s not my place…” Katara said seriously.
“Not mine either,” Mai snapped, then sighed. She had no idea why she was having this conversation, with Katara, of all people. “Listen Katara, did Zuko ask you to ask me to not leave?”
“No, I came up with that all on my own.”
“Do you think Iroh doesn’t have love and support for Zuko because he’s leaving too?”
“Of course not.”
“Then you should know we all have different ways of showing love and support. So mind your own business.”
Katara narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms, looking like she was going to say something sharp, then she shrugged. “All right, fine. It’s just a pity."
“Look, I think all of life is suffering. Maybe I'm the burden to him,” she didn’t know what made her say that, wincing as the words fell. Lately, she seemed especially careless, as if fed up with all the constraints placed on her.
“Yeah, no one said Zuko wasn’t a masochist,” Katara sneered.
And there it was, the corner of Mai’s mouth twitched and Katara grinned, an understanding passed between them, and before leaving, Katara reminded her, “Suki knows this, obviously, but you should too. If you guys ever need our help, if Azula gets out of hand. You know where to find us.”
Mai nodded a weighty nod of gratitude and begrudging respect.
That Katara, she was all right.
Zuko showed up at her door the night before they were to leave for Kyoshi Island. All last week, she’d been kept up to date by an awkward Ty Lee that negotiations were coming together. When the week had gone by and she hadn’t even seen a shadow of Zuko, she didn’t know what to think seeing him in front of her. They had left it at such a misty break up, that she didn’t know how anyone could stand the agony of facing each other so soon, but if Zuko felt it he didn’t show it, and if she had felt it she didn’t show it.
He took out a small package followed by a trinket. “Here, I went through the medicinal stash they only give imperials, and this is the best they have for burn wounds,” and “here, this is also for you,” and he pushed a much small fabric pouch into her hand.
She laid down the pack on her side table by the door, then looked at the smaller ornate pouch. It was an amulet embroidered with a red demon brandishing a sword. “What is it?”
“To ward off evil spirits. My mother gave it to me when I was little. She prayed for it on Mount Kunlun during a year I was sick a lot.”
Mai tilted her head. “Given your record of luck in your young adolescent life, are you sure this didn’t stick the evil spirits onto you?”
Zuko was unfazed. “I climbed back up from the bottom and I’m still here aren’t I?”
Mai arched an eyebrow. “Yes, yes you are.”
She looped the amulet carefully into a fold inside her robe, then pulled out one of her knives as confusion bloomed on Zuko’s face.
“Katara came last week and looked me over. She’s all right.”
Zuko nodded in affirmative, focusing his eye on her knife, “yeah... she’s good at what she does.”
“Do you find her sexy?”
And his jaw almost fell to the ground. “Mai...!”
“I mean, you’re a teenage boy aren’t you? Surely you’ve looked. I know I’m looking. She's like, my complete opposite. Dark skin and wavy hair and big eyes and all that hope and love. Says whatever she wants to say.” At this, Mai started loosening one bun with her free hand and smoothed the hair sash that held the bun in place between her fingers.
“Honestly, lately you really seem like you’re not having trouble speaking up as much. What are you doing with that knife Mai?”
“Yeah, liberation does that to you,” Before he could protest or stop her, she sheered a strip of her hair with her knife.
“But wait, I’m going to guard Azula for a long time aren’t I?” She muttered, breathing hard, then tied her hair sash around the strip of hair before holding it up toward Zuko. “Curse my low-key honor bound heart.”
Her hair had been a matter of pride for her mother, and though she didn’t like to admit it, for her. Ever since she could remember, her mother had hired very fancy hairdressers to trim it, and were always very strict with her attendants to style it. Every morning of her life had began with sitting in front of the mirror getting her hair done meticulously. Mai always found herself too gangly and awkward to be the beautiful noblewoman her mother had envisioned, but she was surprised how her heart skipped a beat as she ripped her knife into her hair.
He stared down at the strip of shiny black hair, tied neatly, being offered to him, and could only say. “Do you want me to tell you to stay again?"
“No,” and she placed the strip of hair on top of his palm, and closed his fingers around it. “To ward off evil spirits.”
With the sharp ends of her hair in his hand, almost like a small dagger, he suddenly said, voice cracking with determination. “I’ll wait for you.”
“That would be truly stupid.”
“Ask around, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done something stupid,” he shrugged.
Mai almost laughed.
“Take care of Azu… my sister for me,” he added.
“Take care of yourself, Fire Lord.”
In the end, they didn’t embrace, not even at the send off when Zuko was crushed in a group hug by Aang and his friends. When the ship started sailing, she had simply bowed with the rest of the Kiyoshi warriors.
She didn’t redo her hair to her ox-horns, but kept it free and flowing. It felt strange to have the wind in her hair and she watched him until he disappeared into a small dot and dissolved into landscape and she thought, “it’s a pity.”
Then she walked with Ty Lee all the way to end of the lowest level of the ship where Azula was kept and rooted herself to the ground, one hand on her knife, and the rest of her awake, alert, absorbed, and she waited.
Chapter 7: Hell Screen
Detailed references to a painting in Akutagawa’s short story “Hell Screen,” Which I highly recommend. It’s magnificent.
Three years and some months later
For the Fire Lord’s sake, Ying Hua hoped this visit to Kyoshi Island will be uneventful. The problem was whatever happened during these visits seemed to evoke such big changes or extremities, and she was not a fan of extremes in anyone, let alone monarchs who could broker war and peace.
The first time the Fire Lord had gone was during the first year of his reign. He had been squeezed by the sheer work of rebuilding a world, holding a nation together, and surviving multiple attempts on his life. When he came back from the brief visit, he was even more rattled. A week later, a group of Kyoshi warriors led by Suki were sworn in as his new bodyguards. It took many months before he could feel at ease with them.
The second time he’d gone, when things at home seemed to be held together through his sheer will and determination, he wore his most grave and serious face before sailing. What came back surprisingly, was not the boy who’d been forced to age beyond his years, but just a boy, who sputtered with genuine happiness, and he began to move about his day with not only a sense of purpose, but a self-assuredness as a result of lightness in his heart.
The third time he’d gone, things were finally settling down, and he began to rely on processes instead of constantly sticking out his own neck. There were still endless piles of paperwork and meetings, but the world he had envisioned was slowly coming together. He’d been exuberant and excited before he left, and she’d caught him pacing, talking to himself in wild gesticulations more than once, as if rehearsing a conversation.
Yet when he came back, he cancelled all his engagements for a day only to throw himself back to work next day in a manner that could only be described as passive fury. When he wasn’t in the throne or council room he had shut himself off in his study, dismissing all his attendants, and only ate morsels of the food they’d left for him at the door.
Ying Hua had never seen anything close to the degree of extremes in the three years she’d served the Fire Lord. So when for the first time she’d been summoned to accompany him on his fourth trip to the Kyoshi Island, she was careful to pick up on his mood. The fact that he was composed, almost easygoing, only made her more nervous.
At least she was one of the three attendants, two personal secretaries, all of the Kyoshi guards, a few other security trainees, and two councilors on this trip. So in the case their young lord falls apart, there would be many hands to pick up the pieces.
Of course, the first thing they did after getting off the ship was an elaborate handover ceremony of the Kyoshi warriors returning home for good. The leader of the Kyoshi, Suki, bowed to the Fire Lord after his speech, followed by the rest of the warriors, and the rest of the trainees who were instated as the new royal imperial bodyguards.
“I’m still going to keep an eye on you while we’re here though,” insisted Suki.
It had been almost a year since the last serious attempt on the him that made it beyond the front gate of the palace, but the Fire Lord simply replied with a half grunt.
As if that wasn’t eventful enough, after more meet and greets with government officials from the island, by lunch they were all whisked away to an elaborately decorated restaurant. Ying Hua had expected the Fire Lord to dine with said officials, but who knew they would retreat as soon as the Fire Lord sat down by himself at a great round table.
Dishes arrived from the hands of well-dressed servers. There were cold dishes, followed by hot dishes, a soup, then rice and noodles, until the table was filled to the brink. Ying Hua was surprised to find the food to be Fire Nation. She smelled enough peppercorn in the air to feel feint and heavenly that she curled her toes.
When the Fire Lord didn’t so much as lift his chopsticks, but simply stared at the feast in front of him, a woman dressed in a cook’s attire strode out angrily and snapped at him with no decorum in mind. “Well, what are you waiting for?”
Ying Hua had to make sure to look and see that the crown was affixed to the Fire Lord’s head, because this was a woman who evidently didn’t see it.
“Well, you, Azula.” The Fire Lord cocked his head, and Ying Hua traded a look of surprise with another attendant. Of course, the princess Azula who’d gone crazy and been “contained" all this time at the Kyoshi Island. Now how in the world did she become a chef? Ying Hua took in some of the award plaques on the wall, an award-winning chef? "You’ve clearly taken to heart of serving your guests much more than they can eat. Join me so we don’t waste?”
“If you insist. But if you’re going by that logic, why don’t we get all your underlings to sit down too?”
That was how Ying Hua had one of the most boisterous, delicious meals of her life from the hands of a royal. This she will have to tell her grandkids. Served one of the baddest Fire Lords in the nation’s history, who was burned by his own father, banished, then betrayed his nation and finished off by overthrowing his own father? Check. Served by one of the baddest Fire Princesses in the nation’s history, who was the prodigy, the favorite, until her mind went bunkers, only to become an A-List chef with a scalding sense of humor? Check.
She thought they’d really finished for the day when the Fire Lord returned to his temporary chambers, but no sooner after a short rest, a change of attire, did the Fire Lord’s series of more meetings began. It was late afternoon by the time they left the government compound, and instead of heading back, they’d gone to what appeared to be flower shop.
If it was a flower shop, it was certainly no ordinary flower shop, but interconnected rooms with highly designed exhibits, centering on one or two avant-garde flower arrangements. Passing through the rooms in light steps following the Fire Lord, Ying Hua thought she’d fallen into a dream world full of strange curios, moving ornaments, and fantastically smelling plants when they finally arrived at some kind of administrative office.
Behind a sliding screen doors decorated with fanciful dragonflies, shadows and voices loomed back and forth in what appeared to be a meeting. A young assistant almost jumped at seeing the Fire Lord, and nearly leaped to the screen doors before the Fire Lord halted him with his hand.
“No, I’m fine waiting here,” and the Fire Lord sat himself down on a very elaborate chair that could pass for a forest creature.
So they waited, and waited, and when the screens finally slid open, a rather severe-looking woman emerged and handed a stack of notes to the young assistant. “I need these meeting notes reorganized and distributed to all store managers in two days. And tell Haiyun that the design for #4 needs to be toned down, less the form of the sunset moth, but the idea of it. Oh, also, cancel everything I have tomorrow.”
The young assistant was frantically scribbling notes on a pad when the woman saw the Fire Lord from the side of her eye. She said “oh” without any emotion in her voice, and continued with her arms crossed, “I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”
“Squeezed together all my meetings so I could fit you in today,” the Fire Lord appeared just as at ease. After a moment of interminable silence as they stared at each other, he added with a smile. "Mai.”
Mai. Lady Mai! The Lady Mai who gave her first task with the Fire Lord. The Fire Lord’s Lady Mai who disappeared more than three years ago! The phantom-like Lady Mai, who despite having disappeared from court life, have been the center of intrigue and rumors to why the Fire Lord had refused any consorts. Ying Hua felt her knees go weak and she couldn’t help it when a muffled sound escaped her mouth. She covered her mouth with her hand instantly when she felt a dozen pair of eyes, including the Fire Lord and Lady Mai’s, on her. It was probably a good thing they ignored her.
“Fire Lord,” Lady Mai turned her attention back to the Fire Lord in a small bow with her hand and fist.
The Fire Lord cleared his throat, then gestured for his secretary. “I’m here to present you…”
“Wait,” Mai called to her assistant, gesturing to the cup of tea he was holding. “Fei, what tea did you serve the Fire Lord?”
“The first Zhuyeqing bud from Mount Ermei, madam!”
“With what water?”
“The first snow collected from the petal of the plum, madam.”
“Oh good, and I see you’re using the plum dehua white ceramic. Wonderful!” she smiled, and Ying Hua swore there was a small nod in her direction.
The Fire Lord looked down at his cup then up at Mai, “the first snow plum dehua what…?”
“And you call Iroh uncle.”
“Tea has never been my forte.”
Ying Hua watched them banter back and forth a while, with a strong suspicion that they weren’t talking about tea, but she had no idea what they were saying at all, until the Fire Lord cleared his throat again, and finally his assistant stepped out to unveil a giant banner with the characters for “most innovative” and “small business” with the Fire Nation emblem on it.
“I’m here to present to you the award for most innovative small business…” the Fire Lord began solemnly before Mai interrupted him, stuck her head back into the meeting room, brought out six other staff members and pushed them forward to hold the banner together.
After a short speech, many bows, Mai’s assistant was suddenly handing out rounds of rice wine, and an impromptu party suddenly broke out and everyone was getting drunk. Ying Hua wondered if she was the only one who noticed the Fire Lord and Lady Mai slipping away through the door. She looked over at the Kyoshi warriors and wondered if she should notify Suki when she saw a soft knowing smile on the warrior leader’s face, staring at the door where the two had left.
“Thanks everyone for your hard work! Now let’s drink more!” Suki raised her cup of wine to a roar of cheers.
So the rumors were true, thought Ying Hua with a grin, their young lord had never gotten over her.
“You think anyone noticed?”
“You think she’ll...?”
Mai hummed “come with me” in his ear. A few swiveled doors, sharp turns, and cabbages overturned, there they were, red faced from a shot of wine each, from running, and laughing. She pulled him along, zipping past the town center crowds, fast enough that no one could fixate on him. When they finally reached the quiet part of town with its rows of houses and sound of crickets, the sun was setting and he stopped her.
“Wait, slow down,” the running made him feel the alcohol hotly on his face.
“It’s all right. We’ll walk from here,” said Mai, staring at the sun with a hand shading half her face. “That girl who squeaked when she saw me, I think I remember her from Coronation Day.”
The alcohol didn’t seem to affect Mai at all, but when they exchanged a look, he thought he saw her blush. Coronation Day had been the last time they kissed, before she left with Azula the next day, before she left with Azula again, and all that was more than over three years ago.
“Right. She’s not a kid anymore huh. I guess this must mean we’re old too.”
Zuko snorted. “Sometimes I think Ying Hua knows more about what’s going on than all my old advisors. Their combined uselessness makes me feel like I’ve aged a thousand years in the last three.”
“You did good,” she tore her eye from the sun, and stepped up to eye him. She had been almost the same height as him when she left, but in the last three years Zuko had grown taller, and she had to tilt her chin by just a touch more. “You did really good, for the world.”
“Mai…” he felt the heat not from alcohol as she moved in closer.
“I’ve been wanting to try something. Humor me?” she asked.
When she kissed him, the sun was on the side of his face, and Zuko felt zapped back into the continuum of their last kiss. This kiss too was long and full of too much unsaid, and Zuko knew right then and there that he loved her still, but instead of pulling her closer, he broke the kiss and gaped.
“Mai, what are you? What is…?” he sputtered. “What about you and Ryu?”
He was surprised it didn’t hurt as much to say Ryu's name out loud. The last time he’d been at Kyoshi Island, he’d been full of hope. Back home, assassination attempts had dwindled and some of his policies were actually taking effect. At Kyoshi Island, Azula had made a 180 degree turn from seriously injuring Ty Lee in the first year, solitary confinement, to sharing quarters with Ty Lee and Mai, to throwing all her residual rage into cooking, to becoming an award-winning chef. They’d come a long way and Zuko thought it was high time for him to try again with Mai.
That was when he met Ryu. Ryu, who helped her start a branch of her aunt’s flower shop at the Kyoshi Island. Ryu, who scavenged for strange, exotic plants in strange, exotic places. Ryu, who knew all about plants, and in fact, gave him a plant that cured the persisting ache in his chest from his Agni Kai with Azula. Ryu, who bowed to him while keeping a hand at the small of her back. Life had gone on for her and he couldn’t even see it.
The worst thing was, she’d said to him that last time, albeit sadly, “Zuko, you really can’t be serious about waiting.”
He was. He was serious about everything he says. But after that he’d tried really hard to move on, to go on dates, and he thought he was in a really good place after delaying almost a year to see her again. Then of course, she'd had to push her tongue inside his mouth to remind him of hope.
It was such a Mai kiss. So committed, nearly violent, but still in control. He’d fallen in love with that kiss. If everyday Mai was made of cool indifference, kissing Mai was a revelation, like unlocking a deeper part of her that no one was allowed to see.
“Wait, don’t answer that,” Zuko answered himself, and with a hand on her back, backed them against the side wall of a house in a deeper kiss. The wooden slats of the house thudded against her back, the hit tapered by his hand. He withdrew that hand, entwined both hands with with hers, and then he pressed so hard against her because he was too afraid she might not be real.
When it ended, they were both out of breath when Mai teased, “Well, that was different. Practice much? New concubines?”
“No,” he intoned, locking his hands on her jaw. “It was always you.”
She looked down, cleared her throat, straightened herself, then smoothed her clothes. “Well, it didn’t work out for me and concubines either.”
Zuko’s eyes widen. “What do you mean?”
She shook her head, as if embarrassed. “It didn’t work for Ryu and I.”
“It didn’t… work?”
“He wasn’t you.”
Oh, said Zuko’s heart. “Oh,” said Zuko.
Then she took his hand, and nodded once sharply toward the cobblestone street. “Come on, let’s walk. I want to show you something.”
They walked on in silence. Mai gripped his fingers tentatively, as if they’ve never held hands before. After two turns onto an even quieter off street, they were in front of a house surrounded by green rice fields, and it was Zuko who intertwined her fingers and held her hand tightly.
Mai pointed at the house. “My house.”
“Your house,” Zuko mused and smiled, eyeing the handsome one story wooden house, remembering when he used to tell his palanquin bearers to go to “Mai’s house” so many times that the head attendant finally said dryly one day, “oh, don’t tell me, Lady Mai’s house.”
They pushed open a small gate, a door, and stepped into the house. The house looked nothing like Mai's parents’ back at the capital. If her parents’ place had been ornate, meticulously decorated, her home now was simple and rustic. He slipped off his shoes and took in the old furniture, the strange art on the walls, the assortment of potteries, glass, and other ornaments that reminded him of her flower shop and office. She’d shut the door and rang a small bell in prayer in front of her small shrine alter, then turned to him.
“It looks small but it’s actually pretty big for one person. Azula, Ty Lee and I used to all live here, but then Azula wanted to get a place nearby the restaurant, and you know, Ty Lee just has to keep an eye on Azula...”
“Yeah, we really have Ty Lee to thank to bring Azula back,” he said.
“Or the fact that they both almost died for it. Or the fact that Azula found cooking. Or maybe, it was always in her to come back,” she led him into to the living room which only had a small low table and a few cushions beside the alter. Before he could say anything, she moved to open the large screen doors that revealed a garden.
A breathtaking number of exotic plants, climbing ivies, and one large cherry-apple tree occupied the small garden. Across from it, the house continued with another wing of rooms. In the distance, the sun had set behind a mountain. Zuko breathed in the view. There was a wild quality about the garden, but at the same time, he knew it was tended to with great care. A space that was wholly hers.
“You did good too, Mai,” he whispered.
She flashed him a smile. “You think so?”
“Yeah, this place, it’s amazing, and you seem happy.”
After the terrifying pair of kisses they shared on the street, Zuko thought of nothing except the moment he was standing in. He and Mai, back together, but all of a sudden he was thrust back into doubt.
Mai had really done well. She had a home here, a successful business, her friends were nearby, and there were men she could date and breakup and marry and start a family with that wouldn’t require her to go through the struggles of court life, the life of nobility that she hated, that kept her shackled. Here she was free. Zuko realized just because she kissed him didn’t mean she was screaming to jump back into whatever it was they had.
But she did say, “he wasn’t you,” and Zuko’s face reddened at that thought.
A cup of tea suddenly appeared in front of him. “You’re brooding at the conifers. Some things don’t change, even if kisses do.”
Zuko sipped on his tea and they listened to the crickets.
“You know, my bedroom still looks exactly the way my father left it,” Zuko began. “The servants moved all his things, but the decorations, furniture, and the arrangement haven't changed. I took one look at it in the beginning and said I was going back to my old room. Of course, advisors argued otherwise, and it would’ve just been another battle. So I vowed that I was going to redecorate it and make it my own. Three years later and nothing in that room has changed.”
“You can’t fight your battles all at once, Zuko. You had to put a country, a world back together.”
“Is it worth it? Look at what you’ve done with Azula. You guys have resurrected an entire human being. From completely shattered, to a functioning human being. You built a home. You built a business. You belong to a community. Everything I do is so abstract, so intangible. I feel like a ghost peddling a wing-ed machine that only I can make out the outlines of, and I have no idea where it’s going.”
Mai leaned back, crossed her arms, and eyed him.
He continued. “I really did try to see other people after seeing you last time. You know why it didn’t work? No one looks at me like I’m human anymore, and between all the paperwork, and treaties, and appeals, and meetings, and assassinations, I can’t even find the time to be human.”
“What are you really trying to say? Are you lonely? Do you regret the path you chose?”
“No!” Zuko exclaimed, his own urgency surprised himself. “I know… this is what I’m meant to be doing. No matter how hard, even if it feels like I’m groping in the dark, alone.”
“That’s a little sad,” Mai removed her outer jacket made of emerald green silk, and folded it neatly down on the bamboo matted floor.
“But seeing you reminds me of what I lost, and who would I be if I didn’t brood about it during a sunset, by a garden, drinking tea?”
Mai froze, then after smoothing out the last wrinkles of her folded jacket, she turned her back to him, and moved her hands behind her back to untie the sash that held together her robe. “I want to show you something,” she said.
Once her robe is untied, she let it hang on her shoulders like a cloak. Underneath the robe, Mai worked discreetly and quickly. A pile of holsters, straps, and bindings, along with a clattering of many knives landed next to the discarded outer jacket. Then, in what was fast becoming an excruciating sequence for Zuko, whose voice died in his throat as he croaked her name, pieces of thin, silk undergarments landed on top of the knives.
His hand fell on her right shoulder with a defeated, possibly frustrated “wait,” and she removed his hand gently and shook her head. Finally, she rearranged herself so that she was sitting on her knees again, her robed back facing him as she swept her long, bun-less hair to the left side of her shoulder.
“Before, you asked me to show you where you burned me,” she began, “I wouldn’t, because I knew you’d blame yourself for it. What I didn’t tell you is the burn brought me close to a moment where I actually thought I was dying, and I’d reacted with such a fear that I was ashamed. That the scars afterward were so bad, that I started hating my reflection in the mirror, and hated myself.”
With that explanation, she brushed off her silken robe so that it slid off her shoulder to reveal her naked back from shoulder to buttock. Zuko braced himself, but instead of scars, an impossible swirl of searing colors — of flames, smoke, gods and demon — danced in front of him. He drew a sharp intake of breath.
Mai extended her arm and leg so that besides the right side of her back, Zuko could see the colors continue up her right arm, almost touching her wrist, and down the right side of her hip, leg, and almost touching ankle. A tattoo made more luminous by the canvas that was her white marble skin.
“After Azula showed the first signs of getting better, I paid a visit to Shengyi, a renowned body ink master around these parts. She was twelfth in her generation of artists. I brought tea as an offering, and told her I wanted a tattoo to cover up my scars. She took my tea but rejected my request. Still I felt lighter after chatting with her, so I started to visit her the first of each month, with no mention of the tattoo. Then during one of these visits, she told me she was finally ready to do a tattoo for me.”
Zuko stared at the tattoo running vertically down Mai’s body, half in shock, half mesmerized. Seeing half of Mai’s body — her bright pale skin — marred by in, paralyzed him, and he blamed himself for this otherworldly mark, and the unimaginable pain that she must have gone through to get it. Yet, the tattoo itself was clearly a work of a master. The colors seemed to dance with life. The red of blood looked as if wet. On her lower back, extraordinarily detailed scenes from the eight great hells were etched onto her skin — from the lowest beggar and outcast with ragged clothes and broken teeth, to the artisan and merchant, their talent and cleverness dispelled, to the courtier of sumptuous clothes and the holy-men with Yin-Yang swishes, human beings of every kind, were engulfed by fire and smoke, tormented by wardens of hell.
Mai continued. “Of course, she had three special rules for all her work. One, she chooses her clients. Two, she chooses the ink design for her clients. Three, her clients are not allowed to see what the design is, until, of course, the finished work lives in the skin. Before she began her work on me, she poured out a droplet of potion from a vial, and she told me with this drop, my scar will fade completely in a month, and should I choose, she will begin her work on me, or she gave me the choice of simply not coming back and live on with my unblemished skin.”
Zuko traced the lines of the hell fire with his index finger, until his eyes rested on the most striking image on the right side of her upper back. A plummeting carriage roared through time and space, and inside the carriage, a beautiful woman with hip length black hair flying upward in flames. The full whiteness of her throat laid bare, and even though her face was not yet filled in, the whole scene was executed so wondrously he could almost hear the woman’s dreadful screams.
“I’m sorry,” said Zuko, “To have put you through this pain.”
Mai shook her head, but didn’t turn to face him. “No, I’m sorry, Zuko, for not being strong enough to stand next to you. I can’t believe you were stupid enough to wait.”
Zuko’s eyes clouded, his finger shook slightly at the sight of the faceless woman, and he swallowed. “Her face, it’s not filled in, what happened to her?”
“This work has taken over two years, and the woman’s face will be the last part to be filled. As for what happens to her, Shengyi hasn’t told me, only that it was a lost story amongst her people that she wished to preserve.”
“She’s falling,” Zuko opened his palm slowly and trailed it up until it rested on her shoulder.
“Maybe, or it could be something else,” she rolled her head until it rested against his hand.
“Come home with me.”
“To be with a ghost pedaling a winged-machine, going nowhere, in the dark?”
“Maybe,” suddenly he flipped his hand and steered her head until she faced him, until he bracketed her naked form between his bent knees, and collected her firmly around his arms, and he said, “Or it could be something else.”