We Have All the Time in the World
Sokka had a perfect view from the floor, wrapped in chains, as Kori aimed the Fire Arm she had looted from Longshot's body at Mai's head and took the shot. Time seemed to slow as the trigger clicked, and Sokka saw Mai start to twitch just before the hammer of the Fire Arm snapped down and ignited the explosive powder within the weapon. The projectile moved too fast for Sokka to see, but smoke exploded out of the mouth of the golden dragon molded into the barrel, and in this slowed-down state he almost thought he saw the individual particles of dust swirling in the air.
The only clue that he was one screaming was the raw feeling of his own throat.
Then time snapped back to its proper flow- there was probably a Timebender off to the side somewhere, freezing things up the way Katara did when she was in a frosty mood- and the results of the shot were visible.
Mai was minus a dumpling-shaped hairbun on her left side, and from the same space a long bang was now hanging free. It swung out as Mai spun and reached behind her back. Sokka caught of glimpse of something white hanging down Mai's back, dangling down from somewhere in her hair to lie flat against her sleeveless undertunic, and then she yanked it free of its string and whipped it into the air. Kori managed to shift the Fire Arm just in time to prevent the knife from sinking right into her chest, and the blade- white like bone- clicked off the gold skin of the Fire Arm right near the trigger. Kori gave a little cry and pulled her right hand away to reveal a finger gushing blood.
The whalebone knife, Sokka's present to Mai twice-over, clattered to the ground right beside him.
Heh. Even when she missed, Mai was on target.
While Kori started swinging the Fire Arm around like a club and Mai ducked beneath it to grab for some of her surrendered knives, Sokka wormed over to the whalebone weapon. His hands were pinned to his sides by the chains he was wrapped in, but that was fine. Kori had secured them with a rock latch behind his back that she made from the spiked head of the meteor hammer with her Earthbending. Now, Sokka angled the knife in his hand, pressed it against the latch, then lifted himself up, and flopped back down on his back to smash the floor against the knife, the knife against the stone, and neither the stone nor the knife against his soft yielding flesh if at all possible please.
There were metal blades designed to break rock, and Sokka had seen Mai do the same trick even with lesser knives by focusing her energies into her strikes. Sokka, however, couldn't do that type of thing while tied up, and most cutting edges would be ruined by the kind of rock that Kori had chosen for her weapon.
Sokka, however, had first-hand experience with the toughness of elephant-whale bone.
Although it hurt Sokka to damage a good blade, there was an undeniable sense of satisfaction when he felt the stone latch shatter from the impact even as the bone itself cracked along with it.
He shook the chains off and pulled out the garrote with which Sneers had tried to kill Kori in the most brutal breakup that he had ever heard of. Then he made his own feelings about Miss Morishita clear by kicking the chains over at her feet and leaping at her with the garrote ready. The chains tangled haphazardly around Kori's ankles. She came to halt, but swung the Fire Arm out towards Sokka. He caught it around the barrel with the cord and then did a quick wrap'n'yank to pull it out of Kori's grasp.
Then she punched him in the face and Sokka went down again hard.
Mai was fully immersed in the fight, and as soon as Kori was rendered weaponless, her mind started breaking down the individual steps that would lead to victory.
Even as Kori was shifting out of her haymaker stance and groping at her feet for the chains of the meteor hammer, Mai was stepping forward and twirling her knives into reverse grips. She sliced in at Kori, and the other woman raised her arms defensively as though blocking a punch. Mai's blades were very much not blunt objects, though, and the blows drew long red lines across Kori's skin. Even that was just a set-up to the next stage, in which Mai swung the handles of her knives outward again to smack Kori's arms wide and away from her body. With Kori's center exposed, Mai twirled her knives again, shifted her wrists, and lunged.
Each blade jammed between Kori's ribs, one on each side.
Kori made a wet gasping sound, and looked Mai straight in the eyes. Although the skin around them was scalded and weeping, the eyes themselves were healthy and not without a brown beauty.
Mai stared back without emotion, yanking her blades back out, and turned away from those eyes. She heard Kori tumble, and glanced back to see the other woman fall over the edge of the platform to the cavern floor below.
It ended with a crack.
Mai relaxed her fingers and let the knives drop to the floor. They were good blades, but she didn't want them anymore. She never kept the weapons and equipment used for the dirty work.
The Mechanist always complained about that.
The cool air of the cavern licked hungrily at Mai's bare skin, and she indulged in a single shiver before locking the whole situation away and putting her mind on the task of getting herself back to a state of safety and comfort, preferably involving a cup of tea, several layers of silk robes, and food that wouldn't explode when handled roughly. A hairbrush would be good, too.
"Mission accomplished," she whispered.
Mai turned to find Sokka staring at her, and raised her sharpest eyebrow.
In response, he walked over and threw his arms around her.
It was a strange feeling. Sokka's arms were bare, as was his intriguing wont, and Mai herself was in something less than a state of proper dress, leading to significant skin-to-skin contact. She couldn't remember the last time she had so directly touched someone. At least, in a nonviolent way; fingers jammed in eyes, as was sometimes necessary in her line of work, didn't count. The sensation was even more personal than the way Sokka had held her when they danced the night before, warm and scary and comforting and weird all at once. It was something she thought she might like more of, time permitting, and made forgetting about Kori much, much easier.
It was Sokka who pulled away first. "Wait, we aren't done yet. Wasn't there a ridiculously dangerous Fire Nation weapon thingy that should be classified with all those secrets mankind isn't supposed to know?" His eyes shifted around, and when they finally came to a rest, Mai followed his scrutiny to the Fire Arm itself, lying harmlessly on the floor beside them. It really did look like something the spoiled teenagers of Ember Island would use to inhale mistweed vapors, the stuff Ty Lee had experimented with before declaring that her body was a temple to nature and nature had some very specific ideas what got through the doors, even on holidays. Yet, it was a weapon with the potential to end the world. Sokka gave voice to her thoughts: "So what do we do about it?"
"We make a very quick decision. Zuko is coming this way." She nodded over at a different angle, not where a group of Firebender soldiers were running towards Kori's unmoving body, but where Zuko was leading a bunch more of his troops towards the ladder.
The ladder leading up to Mai and Sokka's platform.
Sokka scrambled to pick up the Fire Arm, and looked over at the pile of clothes Mai had shed before. "Do you think you can hide it in your robes?"
Mai blinked and considered that. "Um, maybe if I had fine rope and more than a minute. I can't just stick it down my pants and hold really still."
"Um." Sokka blinked a few times, probably trying to picture that, and shook his head. "Okay, we need to get rid of it, then? Throw it over into the pit? You can make that throw, even with something this heavy."
Mai liked that idea, but then something occurred to her. "No good. You think Zuko wouldn't search down that pit? Miners went down there, so his soldiers could, too. And that's assuming no P.H.O.E.N.I.X. thugs are still waiting around to grab this thing."
Sokka slumped. "So what do we do?"
Mai looked around the platform, seeking inspiration. The section of hair that had been freed from her missing bun whipped distractingly at the edge of her vision, but she ignored it the same way she ignored Ty Lee when the acrobat got to babbling about auras. (What was it about trouble that made her think about Ty Lee so much?) The bullwheel and its mechanisms were still grinding away, but Mai doubted that the gears would be enough to destroy the Fire Arm beyond all recognition. Maybe they could hide it in one of the haulers or giant buckets and try to recover it later? No, that wouldn't work, and it would be creepy if they wound up using the one that for all Mai knew might still contain Longshot's corpse. Then her gaze fell on some wooden crates all the way on the far side of the platform, and she felt her eyes widen when she deciphered the characters on the side. "You wouldn't happen to have any sparkrocks on you?"
Sokka blinked at her. "Yeah, but wh- is that a box of blasting jelly caps?"
Mai allowed herself a smirk.
By the time Zuko got up to the platform, the Fire Arm was nothing more than a glint of gold falling down into the mining pit, and shortly after it was lost to sight, there was a sound like a hundred Fire Arms being activated all at once, and a light struggled to rise out of the darkness, but ultimately failed. The cause of so much trouble was no more. Zuko could only stare at Mai, and it took him a long moment to find his voice. "Was that..."
She nodded. "That was the weapon."
Mai nodded redundantly.
The skin around Zuko's good eye tightened.
Sokka inched away from the other boy and moved closer to Mai.
She almost expected Zuko to turn colors, or snort smoke or something equally tantrum-like, but then he relaxed and actually chuckled, a sound Mai hadn't heard since before she could write. He looked at her, shook his head, sighed, and started climbing down the ladder. "I just wish all my betrayers were as thoughtful as you." He disappeared from view, and beside Mai, Sokka let out a heavy breath.
She was going to say something very clever, but then she realized that the echo of the explosion was getting louder- no, the echo had passed, but the cave was shaking now, and getting worse by the second. The edges of the mining pit began cracking, and a large piece of the rim on the far side of the hole crumbled and plunged into the darkness. Sokka looked at Mai, looked back at the mining pit. "I think we used too much blasting jelly. Shall we go with Zuko?"
"The worst he can do is arrest us. Let's get out of here."
They retreated with the Fire Army, leaving Kori's body in her crumbling tomb. After everyone emerged back into the sun, the mine said goodbye with one last massive cloud of dust, and then the earth itself revoked access, permanently.
Zuko did arrest him, but in Sokka's opinion he was very nice about it. There was no yelling, no growling, and he had his guards use some nice smooth rope instead of chains and manacles. The Prince Regent put both him and Mai in Sneers' massive, empty mansion and forbid them from leaving, something he called a 'house arrest' which Mai had to explain was a common punishment back in the Fire Nation's capital for nobles who broke the law but didn't actually tick off the Fire Lord. (She implied the latter kind of transgression was infinitely more fatal.) Sokka, who in his youth had once been confined to a single igloo with three other people for a solid week of the worst winter in the history of the Southern Water Tribe, just shook his head and didn't say a word.
He and Mai were pretty much the only people in Yu Dao still under lockdown, though. Zuko had emptied the city of most of his soldiers to supply the battle down in the caverns, leaving just enough to help the local militia keep the peace in the sudden vacuum of tyrannical authority. While Mai passed the time throwing playing cards at a hat she found in one of the closets, Sokka watched out the windows as the people of Yu Dao got used to a city that didn't have soldiers on every block. The citizens worked together to distribute food, and maybe Sokka was a little biased, but it looked to him like more of the packages flowed towards the bigger houses. He liked to think that the other neighborhoods, with their scrapyards and old brothels, had their own supply chains that he couldn't see from this cavernous mansion, but he resolved to tip Aang off to make sure. There was more work to be done in the colonies than simply thwarting organizations of megalomaniacs and destroying weapons from out of tales of evil spirits. Those kind of situations were more common than Sokka would have expected a week ago, but people couldn't be saved just by adventure alone.
Thanks to Sokka and Mai's efforts regarding said crazy people and crazy weapons, when the Earth King arrived the next day with his own army, he found a free Yu Dao and Zuko's disarmed forces camped in a nearby valley. The Earth Army in turn picked out its own valley to temporarily settle, and messages were sent to politely ask the Avatar to give up his now-irrelevant negotiations with Azula and please come help make sure both sets of antsy soldiers left without incident, thank you.
While everyone waited, a single visitor showed up at Sneers' mansion. Mayor Morishita, it seemed, had the authority to override a house arrest, or else the two constables outside- who indirectly worked for the man, of course- were under that impression. Sokka and Mai received him in the parlor, and as soon as he stepped into the room, he plopped into a chair and slumped like a wilted snow flower. "The Fire Regent told me what happened in the caverns. To- to Kori."
Sokka stiffened in his own seat on the couch, and threw a glance back where Mai was standing behind him. She was completely blank, of course, and if she had any feelings about the matter, she was hiding them well. As Sokka had witnessed firsthand, those robes could hide quite a bit, and not even in the implied sexy way that most men would be thinking of when using such a turn of phrase. He faced the Mayor and said, "I'm sorry."
Morishita nodded. "Thank you. I still can't fathom how she got mixed up with whatever was going on down there. It would be easy to blame that Sneers boy, but- but I knew his uncle, and Kori seemed to like them both so much. I can't imagine that she could be that wrong about someone. I can only think... that Kori and Sneers thought they could stop whoever had stolen the weapon, but-" His voice broke. "They aren't professionals like you and Lady Mai. Why would she think to try?"
Sokka's jaw dropped. Huh, Zuko was getting good at lying, wasn't he? He supposed it made sense to cover up the truth, in this case. As Sokka himself knew well, lies were weapons just like any other, and they could be used to defend the innocent just as much as they could be used to destroy your enemies.
Still, Sokka resolved that however nice Zuko could be with his helpful troops and silly house arrests, they would never play a game of cards together.
With a whisper of silk, Mai stepped forward and bowed to the Mayor. She wore her hair differently now, eschewing her usual tailed style in favor of a complicated set of loops in the back, but the portion of hair left short by her lost bun was free to dangle beside her face, and it hung low as she dipped. "I wish we could explain it to you, sir. Rest assured I intend to track down the people ultimately responsible for this whole incident. In my capacity as a professional, of course."
Sokka had to resist the urge to grin. Mai knew a thing or two about lies, too.
They chatted a while longer, with the Mayor describing a note he got by messenger hawk that both Aang and Azula were coming to help peacefully settle the situation, and that their discussions hadn't been entirely pointless. "The letter didn't go into details," Morishita said, "but it said they had decided that the Harmony Restoration Movement was in need of revisions, and as long as the Earth King was here, they wanted to get his approval for their compromises."
Sokka let out a breath, and felt some chronic tension leave his body with it. "I might be giving warriors everywhere a bad name with this, but I really do like it when problems can be fixed without another round of fighting. As much as I want to take my club to some of the people we have to deal with, it's nice when talking actually works."
Mai rolled her eyes at him before once again donning her mask of indifference.
The Mayor eventually took his leave, leaving Mai and Sokka alone in the mansion once more. It had been a situation that Sokka was pretty sure wouldn't meet the approval of his Gran-Gran, but the 'one thing led to another' that happened was very much not what Gran-Gran would have imagined. A comment about Mai's tendency to throw playing cards when knives weren't available led to discussions about all the various objects that could become deadly weapons when thrown fast enough, which in turn led to a brief war of flung chopsticks (Sokka lost), which finally led to a dinner that could be eaten with their hands without too much mess. It wasn't until after they had enjoyed their fill that the subject of Them came up.
"So," Sokka said as innocently as possible, "where do you think you're heading once Zuko forgets he arrested us?"
Mai was idly twirling a toothpick like one of her stilettos. "Let's cut to the chase and admit that you're really asking if we'll be leaving together or in different directions."
Mai flicked the toothpick onto her plate and crossed her arms over her chest. "I stand by what I said. I don't want to be alone anymore, I want to be with you specifically, and I like that our lives will provide us with interesting times."
"I sense a 'but' in there."
"...no crude wordplay?"
"I didn't think you were the type to like butt jokes."
"Hm. Well, if you come up with any really good ones, you have my permission to give them a try without fear of stabbing." Her lip twitched. "The 'but' is that I'm not very experienced with balancing life. I've been Azula's tool, I've been the dutiful daughter, and I've been Iroh's secret agent. Doing more than one thing, and making them work together, is... new."
Sokka smiled. That was the most adorable hang-up about a relationship he had ever heard. "Do you might if I offer suggestions? At the appropriate moments?"
"That would be acceptable. Incidentally, now would be an appropriate moment for a kiss." Sokka happily indulged her.
Afterward, they leaned back to their seats and Sokka decided that he had enough room for another moonpeach after all. While he bit into the fruit, Mai reached for her toothpick and said, "Do you think Zuko and Azula came to an agreement this easily?"
Sokka grimaced in the middle of swallowing and as a result had to deal with a minor brush with death by choking before he could respond. "If they did, it was hopefully with less way kissing."
And so the days passed until Sokka heard a familiar monstorous groaning sound echo in the skies above the city. He jumped up immediately, scattering playing cards all over Sneers' parlor. "That's them!"
"Great." Mai laid her own cards down. "Let's find out if we really managed to save the world, or just pushed off war for another few weeks."
The Avatar came, Mai dragged Sokka out of Sneers' mansion without waiting for Zuko's permission, and the armies were finally sent back where they came from to prepare for the next potentially fatal misunderstanding.
A few days later, the world leaders assembled for another party in Mayor Morishita's front hall. Mai was inclined to skip it, but Iroh arrived just before the festivities and promised to serve tea for the occasion. The tea itself wasn't much of a draw for her, as Mai could get it anytime back in Ba Sing Se, but Iroh didn't like to see antisocial behavior in his best agents. Better to save her antisocial tendencies for when he wasn't around.
The party started with the speeches this time instead of saving them for the end, and Aang kicked things off with a short welcome that was long on platitudes. Zuko took over from there, and Mai could once again hear the speechwriter behind his words. Surrounded by the other world leaders- Aang, Azula, the Earth King and his generals- Zuko explained from the top of the main staircase, "...renegotiate the Harmony Restoration Movement. The colonies will still be transferred back to the Earth Kingdom on schedule, but his majesty the Earth King has agreed to grant every city and province a one-year grace period, at the end of which the people may decide their own fate. Referendums will be held, and based on the results, each colony might stay with the Earth Kingdom, return to Fire Nation rule, or declare sovereignty either as a single city-state, or as part of a recognized league. The Avatar will oversee..."
Mai listened from the crowd, invisible in a new hair style and green clothes.
Or rather, almost invisible.
Sokka stepped around several of the Yu Dao elite to settle at her side. "I'm surprised you came."
Mai eyed him. "Speeches are boring, but it's not like I had anything else to do."
Sokka smirked at her, and then lifted his chin in the direction of the staircase, where Zuko waved to polite applause and stepped aside for the Earth King to add his own comments. "I figured you'd want to stay away from Azula. It's one thing to know that you're alive, but it's another to actually be within lightning-spitting range, you know?"
"I do." Mai smirked back at him. "But even Azula isn't infallible, and you might have noticed that I enjoy a certain amount of danger."
"Speaking of danger, did you see General Iroh, before? He must have left Ba Sing Se as soon as the lockdown was lifted, but I don't know how he could have no so quickly."
Mai gave a practiced shrug. "He has his ways, and he was highly motivated. He hugged Zuko as soon as they laid eyes on each other, and proceeded to give him a lifetime's worth of berating. Zuko deserved it, but even I felt a little sympathy for him seeing it in action."
Sokka chuckled. "So did Iroh have anything to say about P.H.O.E.N.I.X.? Did he have a mission for you?"
Mai brushed her stray lock of hair aside. That was starting to become a habit; she hoped she would be able to get over it when the hair grew back in. "He never heard of it before, but you can bet that the White Lotus will be looking into it. He didn't have an immediate mission for me, though, so I guess it's back to boredom." Mai thought about leaving it there, but as she said, danger made her feel alive, so she added, "Unless you have some suggestions for keeping things exciting?"
He looked over at her with wide eyes, and then displayed a smile so huge that it almost pushed his eyes shut. "Well, Aang and Katara are going to busy overseeing this new Harmony Restoration Movement stuff. The first colonies were given back to the Earth Kingdom a year ago, so they're coming up on picking their own fate and stuff. But they're not expecting trouble or anything. It's just about being there to set a good example for the world. Nothing they need dangerous secret agents for."
Mai shifted her weight so that her arm- with that same stupid bare shoulder style that he had liked on her other dress- was pressed against Sokka's. "So are you up for a little traveling, maybe?"
"That sounds pretty good. I never really got to explore the Fire Nation, aside from helping to conquer some of it. That really cuts down on the tourism possibilities, you know? And if Zuko and Azula now know you're alive, it'd probably be polite to let your family in on the secret. Open secret. Is an open secret a secret?"
That was an interesting idea. Mai wasn't getting her hopes up for her parents, but Tom-Tom should be speaking by now. She wondered if he knew how to say her name. "That's one goal. Before that, there's a circus in the southern Earth Kingdom I should really track down. It'd be nice to surprise Ty Lee, for once."
"You know what you call two goals that lead into each other?" Sokka waggled his eyebrows. "A plan!"
"I... I have to admit, my plans don't always go smoothly."
"Yes, I recall you running naked through an enemy tourist trap, at one point."
"Hey, that was just an amazingly unlikely sequence of events. Not repeatable. So don't get your hopes up."
"If you say so." Mai showed him a small smile, and then noticed that the crowd around her was in motion again. "I guess the speeches are done."
Sokka went up on the tips of his toes and peeked around. "Yeah, looks like they're setting up a dance floor again. Aang never gives up an opportunity to boogie."
Mai brushed her stray lock of hair away and held out her hand. "Shall we?"
"Since when do you want to dance?"
"I crave danger, remember. So trying not to make a fool of myself in front of you while avoiding Azula's notice? And it will be fun escaping if she sees me and the ash hits the wind. For now, though, I'm still a secret agent. The cover I'm adopting is a bored heiress doing her duty, and the only thing keeping my character sane is the prescence of her Lover." His hand settled into hers, and she led him deeper into the gathering. "Guess what part you play?"
But, of course, he already knew.
MAI WILL RETURN