Author's Note: For LiveJournal's maiko100 challenge. Theme #5: two of a kind.
Then talk not of inconstancy, false hearts, and broken vows.
The sound is by far the most noticeable thing, so many new prisoners, rowdy and unbroken, calling out their futile protestations and vows of steadfastness. It leaks out onto the night air surrounding the tower, an imperfect ruckus, a blemish on the impeccable silence of the darkened capital. However, it is the smell that Mai finds unbearable. Sweat, tears, and even more unpleasant bodily fluids, burning human hair and flesh, all baking together in the summer heat. Mai hates this place. Zuko came to her only once smelling of a clandestine visit. She made him bathe immediately. She thinks she'll do so at least twice.
Her presence does not alarm the guards. There has been an exponential increase in traffic since the influx of captives after the eclipse. There are so many little soldiers to be prodded and teased, tormented and interrogated, that Azula has barely made a dent; and everyone in the Fire Nation knows that where Azula goes, so too go her companions.
Mai makes her way around the winding corridor, and the guard that has been shadowing her immediately steps forward when she pauses in front of a door. He unlocks it quickly, and if he has any reservations he does not allow them to show on his face. The small reinforced metal room is bare, but for the chair situated in the center. The prisoner that Mai requested slumps there, shackled, and doesn't move a muscle when the guard secures the door again.
Her short brown hair has grown out, though it is certainly no improvement as it is also matted and full of snarls. Her clothes are oversized and ragged, and, without her ridiculous makeup, she looks even younger than Mai remembers. Mai sees the surprise register briefly on her face as she crosses into the girl's field of vision; she expected Azula, no doubt.
Mai leans against the wall, arms crossed, and waits until she's entirely sure that every bit of desperation clawing around inside of her is tamped down entirely before she speaks.
"Your name is Suki, isn't it?" Mai asks, monotone. "I have a proposition for you."
There is an interminable silence, and then Suki spits on Mai's shoes.
"Looking for something?" Azula asks from the doorway to Mai's bedroom. Through the window, Mai can hear the bustling sounds of the capital city filling itself back up, its residents freed from their long wait in the underground bunkers. Their lives had been temporarily paused and now they return to them as if nothing was ever amiss. She casts her eyes around her room, neat and precise, unnaturally well-ordered, as though barely lived in. Everything is exactly as she left it before the evacuation, not a thing out of place.
"No," Mai says quietly.
Azula's footsteps are sure and light. Her hand curves around Mai's shoulder.
"I'm really sorry," she says. Mai wonders if there is an actual, perceivable lack of sympathy in Azula's voice or if she only hears it because she knows that it's there; or, perhaps, because the last thing in the world she wants is Azula's pity.
Azula shifts and squeezes Mai's shoulder before wandering across the room. She regards the portrait of Mai and Zuko, head tilted, hand on her hip.
"It's probably for the best anyway," Azula says. Momentarily, Mai thinks that Azula might reach out and touch the picture, though to what end she has no idea. Azula does not, however, merely shrugs and steps away, moving back towards the door as she finishes her thought. "You can do better."
Azula steps across the threshold. Mai reconizes this as her cue to follow, and so she does. She slides the door shut behind her before tucking her hands into her sleeves, fingertips brushing against the edges of the scroll secreted against her forearm.
The second visit doesn't go much better than the first and the third not much better than that. The Kyoshi warrior just sits there, sporadically eyeing Mai with hatred writ plain across her face.
Mai is not Azula. She is not artfully manipulative, not charismatic and electrifying. She is intelligent, incisive, and so very patient, but time is not something of which she has an abundance anymore. There is an ever-shrinking window and, for all that she is not the one imprisoned, Mai has little to leverage in order to entice Suki of Kyoshi's cooperation.
Something else to lie at Azula's feet. Mai dares not mention the Water Tribe boy outright, acts of kindness are mistrusted, and it's generally impossible to negotiate with someone who is convinced that they are an objective in a twisted game.
As deep as the well of her longanimity is, even Mai has her limits when she is frantic, terrified, and terribly alone. This is why she raises her voice on the fourth visit, after they've been there for nearly half an hour, at an impasse, ignoring each other.
"Every time I do this, I have to spend just as much time standing around in this stupid room with at least three other people with whom I have no business whatsoever because you insist on being stubborn."
The sharp sound of her own voice breaking the silence is almost surprising even to Mai.
She takes a step towards the chair and Suki looks up at her. Mai doesn't know what the other girl is expecting and she doesn't really care.
"Fighting in those idiotic dresses is one thing, but I didn't think you were actually stupid enough not to listen to someone who wants to let you out of prison."
Suki looks back at her hands.
"I'm trying to help you!" Mai says and her voice cracks.
The silent room is her only answer.
Mai swallows hard and buries her hands in her sleeves, digs her nails into her own forearms with long-practiced ruthlessness until nothing at all shows on her face. She sweeps towards the door, considering her lack of other options, considering doing things that she knows she cannot.
She's about to knock and signal the guard to let her out when she hears the other girl's voice, hesitant and pained.
"Wait," Suki says.
Ty Lee wanders out of her own drab, lifeless, underground metal room and into Mai's within the hour. She makes jokes about Mai and Zuko and privacy, about the soft futon on which Mai sits and whether the molten mountain on top of them muffles noise, until she gets bored and natters on about Azula's whereabouts and activities instead.
Mai only half-listens and counts time as it passes, imagining the movements of the sun in her mind.
There is truth in what Ty Lee says, as there often is.
When Azula comes to retrieve them afterwards, it's still only them, and Mai knows what has happened before the princess's mouth even curls into a smirk.
"I've told you. I can't do anything for them."
Suki looks up from the steaming cup of tea in her hands. The manacles require her to cradle it in both and bend over slightly to sip.
"What makes you think that I would ever leave them behind?!" she asks hotly.
This conversation is entirely academic. They both know that she will. Mai suspects, however, that Suki needs something or someone to blame other than pragmatism; particularly since she's clearly the sort who interprets pragmatism of this sort as cowardice. Mai obliges her for the sake of expediency.
"I'm not a magician. It's you or no one. Trying to add on half a dozen of your little friends would make this entire ordeal pointless," Mai says, bored.
"Then take one of them."
Mai rolls her eyes. "You're the most skilled and the most experienced. You're their leader. It's their job to serve your agenda, regardless of whether they have to suffer to do so."
Suki rests the cup on her lap and stares at Mai, and there is something beyond the farce there, beyond the defiance to assuage guilt.
"You don't have many friends, do you?"
"Things are different here," is all Mai can say by way of explanation. It sounds forced, childish and unconvincing, even to her own ears. The carefully drawn characters of Zuko's letter swim in front of her eyes every time she blinks, each stroke memorized exactly before she burned it with the candle at her bedside and cast the ashes out of her window.
The rest of the world doesn't see them, the children of fire; that, or it sees them too well.
Suki's expression softens, thoughtful, before she breaks her stare. She drains the rest of the cup without a word.
Everything that exists is centered somewhere in the vicinity of Zuko's cheekbone. At least in this moment. This moment, after he has entered her, when the entire world has fallen away, reduced itself to them alone.
Zuko's hands are clenching at her bed linens on either side of her and she can feel every gasping breath he takes throughout his entire body and throughout her own.
She kisses that cheekbone, then his face slides past hers and his lips are on her neck, on her ear, as she secures the grip her thighs have on his waist. The puffs of his breath just at the curve of her jaw are in time with his movements, and Mai curls her toes and digs her heels into the bed.
"Mai-" Zuko's voice is a rough whisper. "You know that- you-" he stammers, but is interrupted by his own whimper-groan.
He's never terribly articulate and even less so at times like these. Usually all that he can manage is her name, which is fine with Mai. Especially so when she is lacking the mental acuity to be curious about what else he might say. Zuko is persistent, however, going as far as to nudge at her when she arches her back and turns her head, burying half of her face in her pillow.
At his behest, she faces him, their eyes meeting.
"Mai- I love you," he breathes out, like a sigh. "You know that- don't you?" His face is earnest and entreating.
Despite the fact that she is currently experiencing it, Mai cannot fathom a more intense sensory overload than that of which she was already in the throes; she cannot fathom much at all at this point.
So she puts her hands on either side of Zuko's face and kisses him ardently, devoutly, and keeps doing so as she strains to press their bodies even closer together and hopes that he understands.
For the most part, they are focused and businesslike. Mai's plan is reasonably simple and the mooselion's share of the work is hers to do. However, it will all be for naught if Suki is unable, once freed, to survive long enough to catch up to the Avatar and his company.
The tiny interrogation room is not made for airship piloting instruction. Luckily, Mai thinks, Suki is resolved and tenacious enough that Mai is slightly less certain that Suki will die as soon as she's out of her line of sight.
"Why are you doing this? Really?" Suki asks.
Mai finishes folding up the rough diagram she had been using as a visual aid and stows it in her robes before she answers. "That's not what I meant when I asked if you had any questions."
This has come up before and Mai has never given a straight answer because she's not sure that she knows, or that she can articulate it.
Suki gives her an impatient look.
Mai sighs. "Didn't I mention? I believe in the power of true love to heal the world."
"This isn't about me or Sokka," Suki says, voice suddenly subdued. It happens every time either of them mentions the Water Tribe boy, Mai notices. Something about Suki shrinks, some part of her retreats.
Azula gleefully related the way he'd cried during the eclipse, letting the precious minutes wither away, when she told him that Suki had given up on him. Mai looks at Suki and wonders if it was a convenient lie or one of the half-truths that Azula favors even more.
"I already told you. They'll need help." Her pronoun usage is as precise as her aim.
Suki dodges. "If you love your boyfriend so much, why don't you just go yourself?"
Mai bites the inside of her cheek because she didn't put it in those terms and she hates being even mildly transparent. If anyone sees, everyone may well see, says her mother's voice, a ghostly echo in her memory.
"I have a family," Mai says, partly because it is true, but mostly because it is convenient.
"They're rich, Fire Nation nobility. I'm sure they can survive without you." It occurs to Mai to wonder if Kyoshi Island has anything even resembling royalty, a ruling house, someone or something that is solely and completely dominant.
Things are different here. "No. They can't."
"But I wasn't me," Zuko finishes.
Mai stares at him as he stares up at his father's stylized face, mammoth above them. He's always been full of conflicting thoughts, things that he tries to put into words for her, aware that she's listening. It is always a mixture of truths, grudgingly admitted, and lies to himself as he searches and searches, the consummate hunter, but for what, Mai knows he rarely understands. Until now.
He's slipping so far away. She can see it in his eyes and the set of his shoulders. She doesn't try to guess where he's going; if she's honest with herself she already knows. But she doesn't want to know that; she doesn't want to understand what it means for them both or what it will require of her, whether she is capable of being anything other than what she already is and always has been, by design if not by choice.
All she cares to know is that wherever Zuko is going, she wants to go with him.
Mai slips her hand into his. He squeezes.
Mai is well-used to being a shadow. Slipping about the tower is easier than it has any right to be and Suki's cell door doesn't even creak when it's opened. Suki, for her part, is far stealthier than bright white and red makeup and green clothes led Mai to believe she would be, and they make it to the final leg of their adventure with much haste and little incident.
Even in the dark, Mai notices Suki balk at the sight of the small airship. To her credit, she recovers quickly, but Mai takes a moment to climb into the ship with her anyway, to take it up ten feet off of the ground and then bring it back down demonstratively.
She keeps a lookout while Suki changes into the clothing Mai provided and, Mai discovers upon regarding her again, pulls her hair back into a ponytail. The moonlight and the weight she's lost during her incarceration make the effect severe and Mai wonders if Suki, different now in some key ways, even to Mai's inexpert eye, did it for that reason.
When it is clear that there is nothing more to be said or done than bidding goodbye, Suki opts instead for yet another question.
"Are you sure?" It is clear from her tone that she cannot conceive of what could bind anyone to the Fire Nation, even someone born there.
"Why do you care?" Mai asks, instead of answering the question.
Suki shakes her head as though she understands something that is still far beyond Mai's reckoning. "You can't keep waiting around forever."
"You're one to talk." It is unkind, but Suki appears to take it in stride. She puts her back to Mai and returns to cataloging the supplies and systems.
"You'll tell him?" Mai asks after a pause.
"I'll tell him," Suki says over her shoulder.
Mai nods once and turns, beginning her trek back to the capital city before she lets herself ask for more.
The Western Air Temple is a magnificent sight, but by the time that she can actually see it, Suki doesn't care. She feels like she has been flying alone forever, with nothing but her supplies and the bundle of scrolls Mai instructed her to deliver to the Avatar and his friends. Maps and notes and a few incomprehensible charts, all of which Mai qualified as "things Zuko doesn't know or didn't think to take with him," are no substitute for company.
Suki is used to the clamor of so many sisters, living and breathing and fighting together. She is free for the first time in months, but she is not whole. She needs help for that. So she cares nothing for the buildings carved into the side of the cliff and everything for the tiny figures, growing ever larger, that she can see as she nears them.
Even from the distance, she knows that they are suspicious, unable to tell who is coming towards them under the Fire Nation's banner. By the time she lands, however, they have figured it out.
She is immediately swept up into Sokka's embrace and, for a few long moments, every bit of conflict and confusion that has been roiling around in her for months is quieted. He is taller than she remembers and more solid. Lost in this consideration, she misses the tumult of exclamations and introductions, until Sokka's voice cuts through, his breath on her neck.
It is almost a whisper, hoarse and strangled. "How did you get away?"
"She let me go," Suki says softly.
Sokka pulls away enough to look at her, baffled.
"No, not her," Suki says and her eyes land on Zuko, who is hovering at the edge of the conglomeration. Suki extricates herself from Sokka's still-firm grasp and ignores his hand on her arm when she moves towards the erstwhile Prince of the Fire Nation. The moment has passed and she has a debt to repay.
Zuko looks younger, less ferocious, than the day he set Kyoshi Island aflame. And Suki studies him, trying to see what Mai sees, trying to figure out what about this boy could so profoundly move someone that preternaturally silent and still.
"I'm very confused right now," comes Sokka's voice from behind her.
"It was Mai," Suki says.
Zuko's expression is open and unguarded. A mixture of curiosity and confusion is replaced with a shock of pride and pain, longing and loneliness. Suki wonders if Sokka ever looked that way when he thought about her.
"What?" A chorus of incredulous voices.
Suki ignores them.
Zuko opens his mouth and no sound emerges, so he closes it and tries again.
"Did she- say...did she send- anything?" He sounds lost, anxious, and a little afraid.
"Besides me? A message," Suki says. "'I would have gone with you if you had asked.'"
Repeating the words feels so very different than just hearing them. It doesn't just feel like understanding them; it feels like understanding something larger, completely new and unthinkable, for the first time. Or maybe it's just that Suki knows what's it like to be forgotten.
Zuko's face tells a story of dawning realization, as well, though Suki cannot be entirely sure what his epiphany entails.
"I'm going back- I was always- I-I, uh," he begins guileless and apologetic, almost as if he's forgotten that she's not Mai or some manner of direct conduit to her, forgotten that she's not the one he hurt. Maybe she's close enough.
"Don't leave her waiting again," Suki intones and makes no attempt to lower her voice, turns away without bothering to wait for a response.
She marches past Sokka on the way to unload the airship and doesn't meet his eyes.