"You want to abandon the Fire Nation in the middle of a critical transition period and leave Iroh, who despised the idea of taking the throne, to baby-sit while you take Azula on a field trip with Team Avatar to hunt for your missing mother... Please tell me you were just reciting the plot of Pu Wan Tin's next ridiculous play."

The Fire Lord sighed but otherwise ignored the comment. "I need help, Mai."

"Furthering this mad project in any way would be the worst kind of help I could give you." Mai turned her back on him in the direction of the flower shop.

"I want you with me," Zuko said desperately.

Mai looked over her shoulder as she said, "And I want you sane. You can't always get what you want."

She began walking away, but Zuko continued: "You know how to handle Azula better than anyone."

"If you can't handle her, I guess you'll have to call it off, huh? Too bad," Mai said without turning around.

"With or without you, I have to do this, Mai – I have no choice!"

That pathetic defense made Mai stop and turn completely around. Despite her steady voice, Zuko could tell she was boiling with unseen fury. "You made a choice, Zuko – a bad one. Your sister is dangerous and crazy – even your uncle said so. You're going to get yourself and your friends killed because you've let your two worst enemies make you feel guilty for hating them for how they've hurt you and others. Ozai is no father, and Azula is no sister – you owe her nothing. If you want to find your mother, stop acting like a fugitive with no resources and start acting like a ruler. Take a troop of soldiers to Hira'a if you want but not Azula! If you really think your plan makes sense, the Fire Nation is better off without you." … and so am I, was heard, however silent.

Zuko groaned and pressed his forehead with his hands as if trying to keep his mind from collapsing. He soon looked back at her defiantly. "You were never afraid of Azula – why should I be?" he asked, ignoring everything she just said.

Mai looked aside briefly and said, "You're right – I love you no matter what you do, and I'll support you in whatever you want, no matter how stupid, wrong, or dangerous."

"Really?" Zuko asked, stunned but smiling sightly.


"You can't stop me!"

"I didn't say I was going to. But I'm not going to be a part of this madness."

Mai turned around again. She got as far as the door of the flower shop before Zuko called after her, "I thought you loved me!"

Her hand on the latch, the door ajar, Mai turned a fraction, and said softly, "I love the man you used to be. If you ever run into him, come back and let me know – I miss him." She saw Zuko's posture shift in the way that meant he had no rebuttal. Mai went inside and let the door close behind her.

At first, Zuko spent the long walk back to the palace thanking every spirit he could think of that he had resolved earlier to bring no entourage along to witness that not-entirely-unexpected scene. Before long, he ended up dwelling on everything Mai had said and looking at his plans with fresh eyes: leaving his still-unstable nation, tracking down his mother with no one but a few kids, leaving all the Fire Lord's resources untapped, and taking along a free Azula. The more he thought about it, the less Mai fit into that insane scenario. By the time he reached the gates, he wondered who in Agni's name had come up with such an absurd plot...