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.