"What does she think she's doing?" Azula asks, and Ty Lee just shrugs, because really, what is there to say?
They stand atop the gondola. Mai watches them approach. Ty Lee can't make out her aura at all. Instead, she watches Azula, sees the rage in her eyes and the flaring of her fingers.
No, she thinks, not Mai.
But Ty Lee moves too slowly. Even as she's striking Azula's pressure points, Mai is stumbling. Azula falls in a heap at Ty Lee's feet, but Ty Lee doesn't linger; she's vaulting to Mai's side, scooping her up and running. Back the way she just came, praying she can balance on the line with Mai's weight over her shoulders. Following the escaped prisoners.
"Zuko? What should we do?"
Every second that passes is a moment lost from their escape, but Zuko is watching Ty Lee carry Mai across the gondola ropes, and Sokka is watching Zuko.
"You wait for her."
Until he speaks, they had almost forgotten about the warden.
"She just committed treason for you, Prince Zuko. If you abandon her now, you'll be as pathetic as everyone says."
Ty Lee lands, falling to her knees in the gondola shed. Mai slips from her shoulders, landing awkwardly in Zuko's arms. Her robes are singed, and the skin beneath is white and blistered over her chest and shoulder and the top of her arms.
"Azula has an airship," says Ty Lee. "This way."
Mai opens her eyes. Zuko takes her hand. She meets his eyes and doesn't smile.
"Jerk," she says, and passes out again.
When she regains consciousness, she's surrounded by murals of Air Nomad nuns, and she's submerged in water and naked to her waist. Leaning over her is the Water Tribe girl who follows the Avatar.
"This is the worst dream ever," says Mai.
"Yeah," says the waterbender. "I've got some bad news for you there."
She raises her hand and the water follows the movement, dragging the pain with it.
"My arm," says Mai.
"Don't worry. You'll live to skewer people again."
The waterbender's voice is flat and unfriendly. Mai wants to ask if she's a prisoner now, but she's still so tired, and words are so hard to form.
"Oh, good! You're awake!"
It's just like being back at the Royal Fire Academy, only there are paintings of sky bisons where the Fire Lord's portrait should be, and there's no Azula.
"Three days," says Ty Lee. "I thought we'd have to start force feeding you, but Katara said you'd wake up when you were really hungry." She's sitting at the foot of Mai's futon, her smile as bright as the sun streaming through the tall windows. She helps Mai sit up, squeezing her hand as Mai swallows a hiss of pain.
"Where are we?" Mai asks.
"The Western Air Temple," says Ty Lee. "We've sort of joined the Avatar."
Outside, Mai can hear voices, birds, the shriek of swords, the rush of water.
"It's really exciting," Ty Lee goes on. "It's not just the Avatar, of course, there's Sokka and Katara, and their father. And Toph, the earthbender - did you know she can bend metal? I don't think even Azula knew. And there's Suki, the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors."
"She must be thrilled to have us around."
"She's okay. Toph vouched for me." Ty Lee, always weak for praise, wriggles with pleasure. "And there's a boy named Teo, who invents things, and a kid called The Duke who says he doesn't have any other name, and an escaped armed robber called Chit Sang - okay, he says he's innocent, but Toph doesn't believe him, and everyone believes Toph - and there's a really handsome earthbender named Haru." She lowers her voice. "I think he likes me."
Which Mai took to mean he had progressed from infatuation to poetry, and would no doubt be proposing marriage within a week.
"Oh," Ty Lee adds, "and there's Zuko."
"He's teaching the Avatar firebending."
"Great." Mai flexes her arm. Her burns are still bandaged, but it only hurts when she moves, and the pain seems less deep than she'd originally thought. "Where are my knives?"
"Well," says Ty Lee slowly, "you were sort of unconscious, and no one knew if they could really trust you."
"Who has them?"
"They're in a stone box. Only an earthbender can get into it."
"Wonderful." She eyes Ty Lee. "You're not locked up in a stone box."
"I have a natural charm," said Ty Lee, batting her eyelashes. "And I offered to teach the Avatar and his friends chi blocking."
Mai leans against the cold stone wall.
"I guess we're full-blown traitors now," she says.
"You started it."
"I wasn't thinking."
"Mai, you're always thinking."
"Come on." Ty Lee takes her hand. "I'll help you get dressed and show you around."
"It was bad enough when it was just Zuko," says Katara. "Now we have his crazy sister's best friends."
"You didn't see them," says Sokka. "No one could have planned that. Azula didn't see it coming at all." He jabs at the air with Space Sword. "Just ask Zuko. He says he's never seen Azula look so shocked in his life."
"Sure," said Katara, flinging shards of ice at him. "There's a reliable witness."
"I don't know about Mai," says Sokka, "but I trust Ty Lee."
"Only because she's-"
"I," Sokka interrupts, "am with Suki. And she and Ty Lee get along great. Sort of." He paused for a moment, then rallied. "And for your information, just because a girl thinks I'm incredibly attractive, doesn't mean I'm going to lose my keen judgment and insight-"
"Yes," says Katara, and this time she's aiming the bits of ice at his face, "because you have such keen insight into the minds of women."
"What do you think, Dad?" Sokka demands as the ice bounces off Space Sword.
"I think your sister has a point." Hakoda, out of the line of fire, is carving spear tips out of animal bones. "Those girls took Ba Sing Se from the inside."
Katara shoots Sokka a look of triumph.
"On the other hand," Hakoda adds, "Toph trusts Ty Lee, and she has no reason to lie. Anyway," he adds, examining a piece of sharpened bone, "they have nowhere else to go."
There's a light, nourishing stew waiting for her, and Mai doesn't think she's tasted anything so good in years. Or maybe those days of sleep have actually left her properly hungry. Introspection takes up valuable energy that could be put towards better things, like eating.
Zuko pours tea for her.
"I'm glad you're here," he says.
Mai clutches her cup in both hands and says nothing.
"You'll have scars," Katara tells her, changing the dressing on the burns Azula left. "But you should have full movement back in a few more days. It won't be like Zuko's." She hesitates. "Why'd you do it? I thought you and Ty Lee were Azula's happy little minions."
"Have you asked Ty Lee?"
"I know her reasons. I'm asking yours."
Mai flexes the muscles in her arm, wondering if Katara is asking for herself, or if the Avatar sent her.
"The thing is," Katara continues, "it looks to me like you changed your mind just to save Zuko's life. And that's sweet and all, but this is a war. So I need to know, are you here for all of us? Or just your boyfriend?"
"He's not my boyfriend," Mai snaps. "He broke up with me in letter, betrayed his father and his country, then locked me in a cell in my uncle's prison. Without even a word."
"Wow." Katara looks like she's trying not to smile. "He's even worse at being a boyfriend than a mortal enemy."
Mai closes the ties on her robes.
"I didn't want him to die," she says. "Everything else is just politics."
"The movement of your fist needs to be smoother," says Zuko. "You're not landing a punch, you're directing your fire."
"It's hard to concentrate with your girlfriend watching us," says Aang.
"I know." Belatedly, Zuko adds, "And she's not my girlfriend at the moment."
When the lesson is over, he turns to where Mai was standing, but she's already gone.
"Why won't she talk to me?" he demands of Ty Lee. "Why's she so angry? I didn't make her betray Azula. I never wanted her to be part of this."
"And you've just answered your own question," says Ty Lee. She leans forward, puts her feet in the air and balances herself on her hands. "Partially, anyway." She squints up at him. "You know, your aura's brighter than I've ever seen it."
"Thanks. I think."
They're sitting on one of the higher terraces, looking down over the temple.
"You seem really happy here," she goes on. "Like you forget you're a prince. Not that you are anymore, I guess, but-"
"Ty Lee," he interrupts, "stop. I can't talk to you like this."
"Is it because of my keen insight into your psyche? I know you like to think you're inscrutable, but-"
"It's because you're upside down. It gives me a sore neck just looking at you."
"Fine." Ty Lee rights herself. "Mai's upset because she gave up everything for you on the Boiling Rock, and she hasn't decided yet if it was worth it. And just wondering makes her feel like a terrible person, but on the other hand, she didn't wake up one morning and decide to become a traitor," unlike you, she doesn't add. "So she's completely unprepared for this, and she's worried about her family-"
"She hates her family!"
"Even if that were actually true, it wouldn't make a difference to what Azula's probably doing to them now. And she's surrounded by strangers, and she feels like you've changed into someone she doesn't know yet. And if she decides the Avatar's right, then she really will be a traitor, and if she doesn't, then she'll still be a traitor only it'll all be for nothing." Ty Lee shrugs. "You get used to being scared, being friends with Azula. But at least you know what it is you're afraid of."
Zuko opens his mouth, closes it again, thinks for a bit and finally says, "I didn't realise she even had that many feelings."
"Don't worry," says Ty Lee. "Neither does she. That's half the problem."
"You don't talk about me like this, do you?"
"She throws rocks at the wall whenever your name comes up."
Zuko buries his face in his arms. Ty Lee pats his shoulder.
"What about your family?" he asks.
"Oh, they disowned me years ago. They're safe." Ty Lee adjusts her skirt and returns to her headstand. "I like it here. It reminds me of the circus."
Beneath them, Sokka runs screaming along the mezzanine, followed closely by Teo and Momo.
"Really," says Ty Lee. "It's like I never left."
One moment Mai is asleep. The next, stones are crumbling around them, and in the distance she can hear the hum of airship engines.
"Knives," she says as Haru and Toph create an escape tunnel. The Avatar himself opens the stone box for her. She slips her holsters onto her wrists, does the clasps around her waist and ankles. The Air Nomad shirt that has replaced her burned over-robe conceals them. She feels almost herself.
"I think this is a family visit," Zuko says. Mai takes her place at his side, a knife in each hand. He's protecting the Avatar and his friends. She's protecting Zuko.
"Go on," Haru tells Ty Lee, hugging her. "Protect your friends. We'll find each other later."
Ty Lee pulls him down for a hurried, passionate kiss before they part ways. Mai glances at Zuko, and they both look away.
At this distance, she's no match for Azula, and her injuries are slowing her down. But it hardly matters, because all of Azula's attention is on Zuko. It's as if Mai and Ty Lee don't exist. They are running and fighting, but she doesn't see them at all.
When the airship goes down, Katara pulls Mai out of the air, then catches Zuko as Mai reaches for Ty Lee.
They fly for a long time in silence.
"Can I talk to you?"
Zuko can't read Mai's face at all. He used to be pretty good at spotting her moods, but since the Boiling Rock, it's like she's shut down completely.
Still, she hasn't thrown anything at him, and since she has her knives now, that's probably a victory. So he sits beside her on the grass, looking down the gentle hill at their camp.
"It's about Katara," he says.
"Wow. Ty Lee owes me a gold piece."
He's not going to take the bait. He's not going to take the bait. He's not - "You and Ty Lee made a bet?"
"She said you couldn't possibly be stupid enough to ask for my advice about Katara. I said you were exactly that stupid."
Zuko stares at Mai, realisation dawning.
"You're jealous!" he says.
"Please. I might as well be jealous of Azula."
With that flat and horrible pronouncement, she walks away.
On the other hand, Mai decides, finding that Zuko and Katara are actually gone is something else all together.
She buries her best blade in a tree, then climbs to the very top of its branches, pulls her legs up to her chest and broods. This occupies most of the morning. Then the Avatar turns up.
He appears from the sky, landing on the other side of the tree, casual as an owl-cat. His lemur follows a moment later, settling on his shoulder and chittering. The tree shudders as the Avatar leans back against the trunk.
"So," he says eventually, "Katara and Zuko have been gone a while."
"Revenge is a complex business."
"I guess so." The Avatar swings his legs, staring up at the sky. "I hope Katara's okay."
"Zuko won't let her be hurt."
"That's not quite what I meant."
"Oh?" Mai slips around to the other side of the tree trunk, so that she can see the Avatar's face. "What did you quite mean?"
The Avatar shrugs.
"I know a little bit about how you guys are raised and educated in the Fire Nation. It's ... different to what I remember. And different to how Katara was raised." Wistfully he adds, "I remember how trusting she used to be."
"So was Zuko," says Mai. "Look where it got him."
"Do you think the big, bad Fire Nation prince is going to corrupt your friend? Because it looks to me like Katara has a mind of her own."
"I know," he says, "and she's one of the strongest, bravest people I know. But I care about her, and I'm worried, and I can't do anything."
He exhales so hard that a nearby tree is denuded of leaves.
"I just want them to be okay," he says.
"There's no point wanting something you can't control."
"I know." He catches some leaves in a ball of air and bats it about, teasing Momo. "The monks used to say that accepting that we're powerless is the first step to enlightenment. But it's so hard."
"It gets easier with practice," Mai tells him. "Once you get used to it, you stop wanting anything at all. Or feeling anything. You'll never be safe, but you can make yourself untouchable."
"That's not freedom," says the Avatar. "That's the complete opposite of-"
She drops out of the tree before he can say more.
Zuko returns without Katara, and for a second, Mai thinks the Avatar is actually going to kill him. Unless Sokka gets there first.
But he's smiling as he climbs down from Appa.
"I know where we can stay and be safe," he says. "Katara's there already."
Sokka surreptitiously returns his sword to its sheath.
Zuko's family holiday home is pretty much the last place in the world Mai would associate with safety. But that's half the point.
Still, there's an unpleasant chill in the air as they enter the old house. There are still footprints in the dust from their last visit, with Azula.
"Where'd all the paintings go?" Suki asks, pointing at the empty frames.
"I set them on fire," says Zuko.
"You sure know how to have a good time," says Sokka.
The bedrooms were stripped and cleaned at the end of the family's last visit, but there are still traces of personal debris in the drawers and closets. In one room, Mai finds a firebending scroll and a hair comb in the top drawer. The desk contains a letter in her own hand, with a date eight years earlier, addressed to Azula.
She chooses another room.
The room Mai ends up in overlooks the internal courtyard. The night they see the play, she wakes in the early hours of the morning to see flames flickering below.
It's Zuko. Of course it's Zuko. Going through the katas he must have learned as a child, moving on to more complex forms. It's a lonely dance, just him and the fire.
She goes downstairs.
He doesn't hear the door open and close behind her, or the pad of her bare feet on the stones. She watches him for a long time, sitting in the shadows and thinking.
The sky is just beginning to grow light when he falls still at last, crouched in the centre of the courtyard.
"Hey," Mai says as she approaches, but he doesn't move. She puts her hands on his shoulder and sits behind him, and he leans back against against her. He's damp with sweat, quivering with exhaustion and stinks of firebending.
"My father must have seen that play," he says. "Or read it, probably. Any depiction of the current Fire Lord has to get his personal approval." He reaches up and takes Mai's hand. "The audience cheered when I died. Those people are supposed to be my future subjects."
"Did you think your father would make it easy for you? Come on, Zuko."
"Knowing is different from seeing."
"I'm really glad you're here, Mai. I still don't know why, but I'm happy."
He shifts so that he's facing her, their foreheads touching.
"Why I'm here," she says slowly, "is because when I got back from Ba Sing Se after the Eclipse, Azula's Dai Li agents took me to your father. You had turned traitor, my father had lost Omashu, and the Fire Lord wanted me to account for it."
"I'm sorry. I didn't know he'd do that."
"How could you? I always thought being Azula's friend kept me safe from everything else."
"Did she know he would-"
"Zuko," Mai says patiently, "it was her idea."
"Oh." He winds his hand through her hair. "What did you do?"
"What could I do? I told the truth, that I had no idea what you were planning, or that the king of Omashu was that powerful. When that didn't work, I said that I hated my parents and I was only with you because I wanted to become Fire Lady. In the end," she shrugs, "I just begged."
"Hey," she says, "it worked. I even escaped, thanks to Ty Lee."
Zuko puts his arms around her, engulfing her in a tight, clumsy hug. He murmurs something incoherent about protecting her. The Avatar, she thinks, is a bad influence, but sooner or later he'll remember she can take care of herself most of the time.
The sun is rising now, and there's movement within the house.
"Come on," says Mai, extricating herself from Zuko's embrace and holding out her hand. "Let's go down to the beach."
She discards her outer robes and knives by the water and throws herself into the waves, swimming out into the calmer, deeper water. Zuko surfaces moments later. She wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him deeply.
"So we're back on?" he asks.
"Why not? We're probably going to be dead in a few weeks anyway."
"I love it when you're realistic." He shifts. "So you don't just want to be Fire Lady?"
"I want to be with you," she tells him. "If that means being Fire Lady, I can live with it."
"When this is over," he says, "if we win, I'm going to find my uncle and ask him to take the throne. My father usurped him, after all."
"He might not take it."
"I have to ask."
"Fine," she says. "Just don't be surprised when my parents try and get me to marry him instead."
She wishes she could preserve the look on his face forever. Instead, she ducks him, vaults over his shoulders and swims back to shore.
In the kitchen, Katara is slicing mangos for breakfast, while Sokka constructs an elaborate tray of dried fish. He adds a papaya to the precarious pile, humming tunelessly, and takes it out into the courtyard.
"You were up early," says Katara.
"I couldn't sleep."
Mai selects a snow melon, cutting it into careful slices.
"How was the beach?"
"Sunny. Brightly coloured."
"Good morning, everyone!" Ty Lee almost dances through the kitchen, grabbing the bowl of cold rice left over from the night before. "Katara, your aura is so purple today!"
She bounds away before Katara can answer.
"Yeah," says Toph. "It's pretty like a rainbow."
Mai glances at Katara.
"Don't. Say. A word. About my aura."
"Imagine sharing a dorm with her," says Mai. "Waking up to all that positivity and joy every single morning."
"It's like a nightmare," says Katara. "And I shared an igloo with Sokka for fourteen years. Here," she shoves the rest of the mangoes at Mai, "I'll start the tea." She puts the knife in Mai's hand. It's the sharpest one in the house, and Mai looks at it with surprise. Katara has already turned away, reaching for the kettle and the spark rocks.
As gestures of trust go, Mai thinks, this one's pretty boring. Zuko wanders in, leaving a trail of seawater on the floor behind him. He greets her with a long, salty kiss, then she pushes him away and goes back to preparing breakfast.