Kind of riffing with a friend about what would happen next in the Two Birds continuity. This happened.
"Actually, I'd wanted to ask you about that. I feel a little useless here these days, and I miss everyone else. I just don't know if my parents will really let me go. I would rather not have to run away," Toph confessed. Since the major construction efforts in Ba Sing Se had been completed, there was little need for Toph's earthbending skills, superior as they were.
"Yeah. Maybe I can help you there. I'm supposed to meet with the king this evening; you'll be there with your parents, right?"
"Yeah. Iroh and Ursa were invited as well."
"All the better. I'm sure we can persuade them to let you leave." Zuko sounded confident, but Toph had her doubts. While it was true that her relationship with her parents was much stronger lately, allowing her to stay in a different house in the same city was one thing, but sending her to another country (particularly a nation that wasn't on the best of terms with this one) was quite another. Toph's hopes weren't high.
"How is the packing coming?" Ursa asked, hovering in Toph's doorway. Toph had not anticipated her parents' quick, almost cheerful acceptance of Zuko's request to bring her back to the Fire Nation, and as a result she had a lot of packing to do before the next morning.
Ursa laughed. "I was wondering if you wouldn't mind taking some gifts back for me? I have some things for the girls."
"Shouldn't be a problem."
"Thank you so much. They're labeled, so they should be able to figure out which belongs to who." Toph sensed Ursa was holding something back as she walked lightly into the room and placed the parcel on Toph's bed. With a sigh, Ursa wrapped her arms around Toph. "It's been so wonderful to get to know you. I will miss having you around. You are the most amazing little girl I've ever met."
Toph supposed she had not realized her departure's impact on Ursa, whose banishment prevented her from ever returning to the Fire Nation. She regretted leaving Zuko's mother behind. "I'll come back and visit as soon as I can. And often."
"That might not be the best idea for right now, Toph. Your parents may not be willing to part with you so freely next time. I get the feeling the circumstances were just right this visit. That's not to say you won't be able to visit again, but you need to wait for the right time."
Toph seriously doubted her ability to read such circumstances the way that Ursa did, and did not imagine she would possibly recognize any such moment, but she nodded anyway, and hugged Ursa tight.
Now that Zuko was properly playing his role of Fire Lord, it was not possible for him to continue flitting around the world in one of the smaller balloons he preferred, without room for the entourage he was supposed to keep with him. And since the larger balloons still made residents of the Earth Kingdom nervous, probably rightly so, Toph, Zuko, and the entourage were now making their way for the coast in an earth-bending-propelled carriage, where a ship waited for them. Toph was pretty sure her own bending could get them there at least a little faster, but she was prevented from proving it. Her parents may have let her go, but they seemed to have sent surrogates to tell Toph what she shouldn't do. It was deeply frustrating. Zuko was in the same situation, irritated that his own entourage prevented him from going about his business at a reasonable pace. Toph was now just a little amazed he was able to get anything done at all.
"Wow, Toph! Looking good!" Sokka greeted her.
"I wouldn't know." Toph was grouchy, not just because the journey had taken longer than was strictly necessary, but because she'd been forced to spend most of it being groomed and primped and polished for her arrival. She'd almost been forced to wear shoes, but had managed to secretly get rid of them and hide her bare feet beneath the long dress she had also been forced into.
"No, really! You look so pretty, Toph!"
"Yeah, you look wonderful!"
"This is the most clean I've ever seen you!"
The others seemed intent on talking about this. Toph was not in the mood. "Can we please drop it? I get it, I'm dressed nice, but I really don't care!" Toph was about to dramatically storm off when a hand on her shoulder stopped her. One of the surrogates again. Apparently storming off was on that list of things Toph could no longer do. She seethed silently instead.
"Sorry, Toph... it's just a little bit of a shock. It's nice to see things are going well with your parents, though."
"I'm sorry, Aang, it's just... it's different." Toph sighed. "Would you excuse me for a little while? I'd like to catch up with my friends," Toph asked the surrogates. They disappeared silently, probably planning to pop out the next time Toph did anything remotely in character.
"I'll find you guys later," Zuko said, clearly disappointed he had to be a Fire Lord right now.
The rest of the group found a secluded bit of the grounds to monopolize, and Toph relaxed a bit, filling in the group on the recent developments with her parents and sending Iroh's and Ursa's regards. "I have a couple gifts from Ursa, by the way... for the girls," Toph said, removing the parcel from her pack. Despite the surrogates' wishes, she insisted on keeping it with her.
"Unfair!" Sokka whined, as the girls distributed the presents among themselves.
"Well, Sokka, if you really wanted some hair ornaments, I'm sure I could share," Katara said, laughing. "These are really pretty... Ursa's got some great taste! I'll be sure to send thanks. What's that, Suki?"
"A dress. I guess it's some of the latest Earth Kingdom style..." Suki referred to the note that accompanied it. "Ursa says she likes seeing me all dressed up. I think it's a little much, though."
"I don't know, I think it's kinda nice..." Sokka mumbled.
"Maybe I'll let you borrow it, then," Suki teased. "How about you, Mai? What's that?"
"Tea." Mai sounded indifferent. Toph thought she might have heard the sound of paper disappearing into Mai's sleeve. "I guess Iroh has some new varieties they thought I might like."
The time passed pleasantly enough. Toph continued to be forced into fine clothes and frequent baths, and she got used to that cautioning hand on her shoulder whenever the opportunity for something fun or impulsive came up. Packages from her parents were arriving almost daily, often gifts of new clothing (Toph had not had much in the order of finery on hand, certainly not enough to keep her dressing like that everyday) and most recently, some things her parents must have had sent from their home.
"Wow, Toph, what's all this?" Katara asked. She, Suki, and Mai were often left out of the serious Fire Nation business that involved the others, and the girls subsequently spent a fair amount of time together. Toph was pleased enough to be left out of those endless talks, Katara was understanding, but Suki and Mai seemed to resent it. Of course, Mai seemed to resent almost everything, so she might have been fine with it, Toph couldn't say for sure.
"I don't know yet. I recognize the chest from home, though. But I haven't opened it yet."
"Well, let's get to it then, shall we?" Suki offered. Her spirits had been a little better since Sokka had "offered" to share with her all the details of his meetings.
"Wow, Toph... this stuff is... really nice!" Katara sounded surprised.
"You've seen my family's home," Toph said. That should be explanation enough.
"Yeah, but... I think they must have been holding out on us!" Katara joked.
Suki, who Toph would not have guessed cared at all about that sort of thing, was admiring some fabric while Katara shared with her an apparently beautiful tea set. Mai was quiet, unsurprisingly unimpressed.
"Wow, Toph... how long do they think you're gonna be out here?" Katara was laughing, when Toph heard Suki, very faintly, gasp.
She recovered quickly. "Seriously. Did they mention anything about ever seeing you again?" she laughed, but Toph thought she could sense something troubling her. Deciding she didn't really want to know the reason for the room's shift in mood, Toph let it go. It wasn't long before she was called away to re-dress for dinner (a custom she generally protested as being so beyond utterly pointless) and didn't even object a little.
Mai wasn't sure if she was surprised because the other girls had figured it out so soon or because it had taken them this long, but regardless, things were quickly going to get more complicated.
"Look at this," Suki held up the garment that had put the pieces together for her: an extremely fine dress in Earth Kingdom colors, embroidered with the Bei Fong boar and the Fire Nation emblem. She gestured to the chest and various other packages the Bei Fongs had sent. "This is a dowry."
"That can't be right," Katara objected. It would be a long time before she acknowledged Toph as a woman rather than a child or a little sister.
"I'm telling you. They've sent all this... they're marrying her to someone in the Fire Nation."
"That makes no sense. Who do they even know in the Fire Nation?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Mai finally chose her moment. "She's engaged to Zuko."
As predicted, the girls just looked at her as though she'd just said Toph was promised to Appa.
"Well, at least as far as they're concerned, it's quite obvious." Mai would really rather not have to spell this out, but it seemed be sufficiently unexpected to render Katara and Suki completely void of logic. "Ursa had warned me this would be practically inevitable. She knew there weren't many explanations the Bei Fongs would consider for Zuko taking Toph halfway around the world to meet the mother that subsequently begged them to accept and acknowledge their daughter."
"Oh... and with how unstable things are between the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation right now..." Suki had caught on.
"A marriage between the Fire Lord and the daughter of the most prominent Earth Kingdom family would be a logical move."
"And she stayed with them! With Iroh and Ursa... It must have looked like she was a member of that family already."
"I don't understand." Katara was adamantly rejecting this idea.
Suki shook her head. "You're still seeing them as Zuko and Toph, Katara... you need to see them as the Fire Lord and, effectively, an Earth Kingdom princess. There is an Earth King, but there's no royal family or daughter to bargain with. The Bei Fongs... you might not understand this, not having lived your whole life in the Earth Kingdom, but the Bei Fongs are like royalty. Now that they've acknowledged her, Toph might as well be a princess." Suki had picked up on that much.
"When Ursa sent the gifts," Mai pulled the note out of her sleeve, where she had been keeping it safe and secret, "she warned me that things were going to start moving quickly. Typically, the engagement would last much longer, but my significance didn't go as unnoticed by the Bei Fongs as we had hoped. They realize that if things are smoothed over between the two nations, that marriage will be unnecessary."
"But... how can they do that to Toph?!" Katara was a little outraged.
"It's one way to ensure that Toph is cared for. She can be looked after better in a royal family than probably anywhere else."
"Why are you not more upset about all this?!" Katara asked, determined to take it out on someone.
"Because, politically, it is the best move. It isn't what I would desire, but I know that Zuko is a Fire Lord, and there are things I've had to accept about that." Mai slipped Ursa's note into her sleeve again. "Unless I can find a politically wise alternative that will satisfy all concerned parties, I'm afraid it needs to happen."
Katara was still totally dumbstruck that anyone could be so outwardly calm about something like this, but Suki nodded and asked, "Do either of them know?"
Mai shook her head. "It isn't necessary at the time. In fact, very few parties are fully aware of the circumstances. Zuko's advisors have been planning it with the Bei Fongs for some time, but they are unaware that anyone else has realized what is happening. If they were aware that I knew, they would have pressed for an even earlier wedding." Mai was totally calm; there were times for emotion, and this was not one of those times. "Which is why I must ask both of you to speak of this to no one. Including Toph. She suspects something is wrong, and I'll fill her in soon, but you cannot tell anyone. They will all learn eventually, but I'm handling this, and it's delicate enough without anyone else interfering. Do you understand?"
Mai was standing near the fountain, waiting, listening, when Sokka approached her. "You know what's weird? Engagements. Yeah, I knew a girl once..."
"Suki told you?"
Katara then. Wonderful. It was probably safe to assume that at least Aang was aware now as well. At least she could still intimidate Sokka. "You will not speak of this to anyone, do you understand? Even Suki. The people keeping this a secret must believe they're still doing their job, do I make myself clear?" For added impact, she grabbed Sokka's collar. The tip of a concealed blade pushed gently at his throat. "Does Toph know?"
Mai missed her rendezvous with Zuko to find Toph. If this was going to become public, she would do everything in her power to control it. That meant Toph and Zuko would have to be brought in on this. Mai prayed that Toph would take it well; Zuko was undoubtedly going to be difficult, and she would need her energy to deal with him.
"Come in," Toph prompted before Mai even reached the door. She'd definitely been expected.
"What's going on?" She clearly knew at least part of the story already.
"As things stand, you and Zuko will be married soon. Your parents have been making you into a suitable bride, and sent a suitable dowry. It's hoped that this will cool relations between the two countries and secure the Earth Kingdom's trust. On a more personal note, your parents believe that this will ensure that you will be properly looked after from now on."
Toph nodded quietly. "I can't believe I didn't even see it happening."
Mai wasn't sure if that was supposed to be, even partially, a joke. She had never spent that much time with Toph, which made her next steps difficult. "I've only been assuming, but... how do you feel about the arrangement? If you had a choice?"
"I don't know. I mean... I'm a little happy that my parents have finally given me some amount of responsibility, but... like this? I don't know. If it had to be anyone, I guess I'm glad... but this isn't what I would have really chosen for myself. I guess I'm just disappointed to realize what it actually means for my parents to acknowledge me. I hadn't really thought about that part."
Mai weighed her options. This would all be more difficult than she had realized. She would probably need Zuko's help after all. "I know this is awkward, but... I don't want this to happen," Mai admitted. Toph nodded. "But I won't do anything that leaves you out in the cold, okay? If you must have an arranged marriage... if it had to be anyone... So unless I can find an option that won't wind up with you married off to someone else, I'll let this happen, okay?" It broke her heart a little to promise it, to close the window that much farther, but it needed to be done. There were times for emotion, for selfishness.
"Do you really think this can turn out well?" Toph asked. She was calmed a little by Mai's promise, but was still obviously a little hopeless.
"I'm going to try, Toph." The note from Ursa seemed to burn a little in her sleeve. "You should probably know that Ursa would love you as a daughter. If it doesn't end up that way, if I... she made me promise to try and be a little more like you. You would be welcome here... if it had to be anyone..." Mai faltered. She hadn't had a chance to finish planning this encounter.
"Mai, it's going to be you. Whatever you need from me, I can do it. Just say the word."
Mai left quietly, regrouping. There was one person left to talk to.
"Zuko, calm down."
"This is my life! How dare they... ?! It's Toph! How can they imagine....?! It's absurd!" He made a long series of frustrated noises to really drive home his point.
"If you think like a Fire Lord, this makes a lot of sense, Zuko. Things are delicate. The Earth Kingdom is unhappy and distrustful, and your own people aren't certain you have what it takes to actually rule. Winning a throne is different from keeping it, and you have to go about the latter in the right way. You see that, don't you?"
Mai's own rationality about the situation seemed to help. Zuko spent most of his days in meetings discussing just that; it was impossible to deny it. As a leader, a marriage to a nice Earth Kingdom girl from a highly respectable family, particularly a girl that had helped him win the throne, was an incredibly sound course of action. "So I need to choose between you and being a real Fire Lord?" She was touched at how conflicted he sounded.
"Not necessarily. It may be possible to make everyone happy. What you need to do, Zuko, is keep calm and listen and wait. A solution may present itself to us."
"What if it doesn't, Mai?"
"It will. I told you before, didn't I? You're never breaking up with me again." She kissed him before he had a chance to protest, silencing his arguments before he could make them. The debate that followed was instead purely tactile.
There were times for emotion.
It wasn't too long after Mai had come to speak with her that first time that Toph noticed the engagement began to make itself public. Whether it was because the word had spread or the signs were getting too difficult to ignore, Toph wasn't sure, but she found herself spending more of her day in public and in Zuko's presence than she had before. The two of them hadn't had a chance to discuss what was going on, or anything really; they were never left alone. Toph wasn't sure what she would say to him, anyway, but she had time to think about it. Truthfully, Toph wasn't positive how she felt about the arrangement. She had no desire to be anyone's /wife/, and she wasn't enjoying having to stay put and behave like a proper Fire-Lady-in-training. But she and Zuko were friends, they understood each other, and she did really like his family. Growing up to be like Ursa rather than a warrior wouldn't be the worst thing, and she couldn't deny that officially belonging to that family, being Ursa's daughter and Iroh's niece, was something that she wished for. She didn't want to think about how desperately. Knowing how much her own parents desired this, too... she couldn't think of a way of not going through with it that wouldn't disappoint them at least a little. But Toph figured that if an opportunity to make everyone happy presented itself, it would do so in one of those boring discussions she rarely ever listened to, and so she counted on Mai.
Whether it was because she was the most respectable Fire Nation girl at court or it was Zuko's doing (or possibly her own), Mai had been basically assigned as Toph's companion. When they weren't alone, Mai instructed her casually on Fire Nation culture and customs, and when they weren't being watched, Mai whispered the latest news, keeping Toph up to date. It wasn't that there was ever a lot to report, but it was helpful. Just knowing that Mai was listening so carefully for a perfect opportunity was reassuring.
"You know Ursa wanted me to be more like you, not the other way around," Mai whispered to her. They were alone outside on the grounds, but they always held their conversations in whispers, just in case. "I don't know if it's supposed to make the transition easier for me or what, but you can cut it out."
Toph hadn't been positive what Mai was talking about, but when she tried to smile, she found it was more of a chore than a reflex. "I didn't even realize."
"Are you that upset about the prospect of ending up with Zuko? You can tell me. I understand."
Toph laughed weakly. "No, it isn't that at all. I'm not really unhappy about anything, it's just... I'm not sure I've ever gone this long without bending. Or fighting, really. I think I just really miss it a lot, is all."
Mai was silent for a moment. "Toph," she said finally, "I may have found our opportunity. I'm not positive, so you'll have to give me a little time, but... I think I found it."
It was late that night that Toph woke to a slight tapping at her door. Mai whispered, "We have our opportunity, Toph. Be awake and ready to leave this time tomorrow night, and I'll explain everything."
Mai refused to speak about the plan to Toph the next day, instead arranging things so Toph could sneak back to her rooms and rest. Mai insisted that Toph would need her energy that night, and should get some sleep now while she had the chance. She made some kind of herbal tea, and Toph found it strangely easy to drift off. It was soothing to know that things were happening.
Toph was wide awake after everyone else had gone to bed and the palace was quiet. Near the middle of the night, Toph sensed light footsteps in the hall, and Zuko and Mai drifted into her room.
"I think someone spotted me," Zuko whispered urgently.
"So?" Mai's whisper was a sigh. "At worst they saw you sneaking into your fiance's room at night. I doubt that they will investigate."
Zuko sputtered while Mai took a seat beside Toph to explain the plan. Zuko was intently silent as soon as she started speaking; apparently he didn't know much more than Toph did. "Lately there's been a band of ex-Fire Nation soldiers in the Earth Kingdom. They're only known here as 'the raiders' but it's possible they're referred to by other names. What we do know is that they have a Fire Nation tank, they are probably in the South by now, and they may have recruited some earthbenders to help them with their raids. They're believed to be anarchists and enemies of both the Earth and Fire nations. What we need you to do is find them and defeat them."
Toph felt herself smile easily. "Sounds great!"
"The catch is that you're going to have to do this mainly on your own."
"What?!" Zuko asked harshly. "On her own?! Fighting all those soldiers by herself?! We don't even know how many there are! How is she even supposed to get there, anyway?!"
"I said 'mainly,'" Mai clarified calmly. "You'll have some company, but we can't let you go with anyone too powerful or prominent. This needs to appear as if you went entirely on your own."
"This is insane!" Zuko objected.
"I love it!" Toph was thrilled.
"Great, follow me," Mai requested, leading the way. The three made their way outside in virtual silence. Toph sensed Appa breathing nearby. "What's he doing here?" Mai asked, irritated.
Suki's reply of "He followed me" interrupted Sokka's of "I'm coming."
"No, you're not," Mai and Suki responded together.
"People will notice if you're gone, and will be less likely to notice Suki is gone if you're here," Mai insisted. "I thought we went over this the last time you insisted you were coming."
"Well that was before you told me what they were fighting!"
"Sokka, we'll be fine, okay? It's no worse than we've taken on before."
"You need to stay here. Just be waiting for me when I get back."
"What if you don't come back, though?" Sokka sounded more vulnerable than Toph had ever heard him. "I would never be able to forgive myself."
"I stole your boomerang," Suki confessed. "So I have to come back."
Sokka relented after wishing her luck in a completely nonverbal fashion.
"Is it really okay to take Appa?" Toph asked.
"I got permission from Aang. Don't worry. He and Katara send their best, and we'll all see you when you get back." Mai actually sounded a little thrilled that things were working.
Zuko stepped up to say goodbye, squeezing Toph's shoulder a little awkwardly. "It wouldn't have been that bad, you know."
Toph laughed and hugged him.
Sokka groaned. "Geez you two... I thought this was supposed to be about breaking up an engagement."
Mai heard bits and pieces as the stories began to come back. Suki and Toph had apparently made quick work of the raiders; Mai didn't know the true story and didn't much care, as the legend that went around claimed that Toph had gone ahead and attacked the tank itself, using her metalbending to destroy it and subdue all those within it. The raiders were found pinned to the ground and what remained of the tank, and all told how it was the work of a small blind girl who said to them her name was Toph Bei Fong, and they were to remember it. The stories didn't end there, either. Toph had supposedly (or actually, it didn't matter) gone on to sneak into cities that had been attacked by the raiders and secretly repair some of the damage during the night. A few raiders that had either escaped or were separated from the tank were hunted down, and some of them talked about the little blind girl, and how she communed with spirits who acted as her eyes and could take a man down quick as lightning.
Mai was pleased.
By the time Toph and Suki returned to the Fire Nation, the legend had spread into songs, most of which were very popular in both countries. The standard version held that Toph, upon hearing that the raiders were closing in on her home village, had appealed to the spirits and been granted a guide to take her there. The guide would change forms to suit Toph's needs (one of the more poetic interpretations developed a romance between the two; Suki found this endlessly hilarious) and together they attacked the tank and judged all within it. Then she and the spirit went on to repair the Earth Kingdom and protect it from future threats. The important thing was that Toph was now recognized as the spirit-sanctioned protector of the Earth Kingdom, and condemning her to walk in Fire Lord Zuko's shadow for the rest of her life would be seen as an insult. In the Fire Nation, as much as such a powerful Fire Lady would have been appreciated, the spirit element of the story made people a little scared of Toph. Generally, they would be content so long as they could believe Toph had any stake in their nation.
Toph's parents weren't thrilled that Toph would never have that sheltered life they always hoped she'd have, but were forced to admit she didn't really need it. Ursa had written that they had returned to their home in the South, content that stories of their daughter would spread to them fast enough.
The story needed an ending yet, and for that, Zuko would need Iroh. Mai convinced him to send for his uncle, and the plans for the ceremony began.
It was about as elaborate as Zuko's coronation, if not slightly better attended. Zuko appointed Toph an Ambassador (though for which country remained a little hazy and would have to depend on who you talked to) and Iroh, the Dragon of the West, gave Toph the title "Dragon of the Earth." Between the two, Ambassador Toph, the Dragon of the Earth had a home wherever she elected to stay, in exchange for protecting the two countries that claimed her.
There was just one thing left to do before Mai could relax properly.
She was waiting for him near the fountain.
"I can't believe that came together so well... you're brilliant," Zuko said, embracing Mai.
"I can't be expected to make all of your fiances into national heroes, though."
"If anyone could do it, it's you. I still have no idea how you put all that together with the raiders... and you were absolutely right about... well, everything. Remind me to never argue with you when you're that right."
"I'm always right, Zuko."
"I wait and I listen. It's the best way to gather information. The busier you get, the more you're going to need someone like that close to you."
"That's why I have you." It was difficult to stand her ground when he was being so tender.
"For now, but like I said, I can't find a way around all of your impending marriages."
"You were serious? I thought you were joking."
"Just think about it for a minute. You're still highly eligible. Sooner or later, they're going to pick someone else for you."
"But... what about you?"
"They might choose me, if they just needed you married. But I don't buy much political stability, and I'm certain if they looked, they'd find more than a few suitable matches."
"But I don't want to marry some girl to buy political stability. What if I choose you?"
Mai took his face in her hands. "Then choose me."
If they mentioned her at all, the stories would call her Zuko's second choice. Mai had spent enough of her life hiding in the shadows to be comfortable there, and was perfectly happy with this. Perfectly happy in general, really. Zuko had informed his advisors that he was going to the Earth Kingdom with his new fiance, and would return with his Fire Lady. In the interest of some amount of propriety, they traveled in two groups, split between Appa and one of the smaller balloons that Zuko preferred, but they left Zuko's entourage behind.
For Mai's part, it had been a long journey. Katara was out of her mind with excitement, and Toph and Suki were too entertained to reign her in at all. Those two had generally been in excellent spirits since their return. Though Mai was unable to offer her anything approaching the kind of recognition Toph had received for their exploits, Suki just seemed happy to have been a part of it, and actually seemed to enjoy the secrecy. Toph loved her new reputation, and having all the consent she could ask for to roam the world fighting bad guys was certainly her version of happily ever after.
A small part of Mai was worried that when Toph grew up, she might feel as though she'd been cheated out of something better, but Mai had never been able to read Toph that easily. It was entirely possible that Toph was truly not meant for court, and would have been smothered rather than rallying and flourishing if she had been forced to remain on that path. It was a pity in a way, because Toph's raw skills for waiting and listening could be honed into something extraordinary. But Mai never really had perceived much of an existence outside the palace walls; to her, being in the world beyond had always felt like being farther from the action. Perhaps that wasn't the ultimate truth she had believed it to be. Perhaps Ursa understood all of this, all of them, much better than Mai did, to have guided them as she had. And perhaps it was Ursa's years away from the palace that gave her this understanding.
Mai would have time to learn.
It was only barely a ceremony, but Katara's enthusiasm certainly worked wonders to make the most of it; she adamantly refused to let the wedding be as quick and dirty as Mai and Zuko had told her it should be. Mai was secretly a little grateful.
At some point before they began, while Katara was rushing around to find more nonsense to put in Mai's hair, Ursa stepped in. It was the first time Mai had ever been truly alone with her; she wasn't actually sure how to be totally open with this woman, or if that was even possible. There was certainly a lot she wanted to say, a lot she wanted to ask about, but Mai wasn't sure where to begin or if this was even the time. Instead, she decided to simply follow any cues Ursa might give her.
It seemed they had been frozen there for ages before Ursa reached out and embraced Mai.
"I'm so glad you're there to watch over him."
Mai's words had left her. She had been in awe of Ursa her whole life, and having this woman acknowledge her so favorably... it meant more than Mai had realized it could.
"If I can't be there for him..."
"I will be. Always." It was an easy promise for Mai to make.
The ceremony was as traditional as they could manage, being in the wrong country with so few people, and as with most things planned and executed by this group, it did not go entirely as planned, but Mai smiled for the whole duration.