Zuko was acting strange again.
They leaned on the balcony rail, looking out over the city. It was calmer at night, no shouting or carts squealing over stones, no fire nation soldiers barking orders at each other like overgrown dogs. Mai could almost have smiled, if only Zuko would tell her what was going on in his head these last few days.
Ever since Ember Island, he was different. His words were jumbled, he paced the floor, and whenever Mai tried to comfort him, he just looked at her with this strange, sad expression. Mai was an expert at pretending not to care, but Zuko was the one person who could get under her skin, who broke down that shield. It was usually a good feeling, having someone to love and care about, but lately, all she did was worry about him.
The door opened and brought with it Ty Li and Azula. Mai sighed inwardly but sat with them as she was told.
“The day of Black Sun is upon us, ladies – and Zuko,” snapped Azula. “If you would care to join us?”
Zuko pouted but joined them, sitting close to Mai and holding her hand.
“Ugh, you two are such a miserable pair of Squirrel-Toads,” Azula said with an upturned nose, “It’s hard sometimes even to look at you.”
“Get to the point, Azula,” said Zuko.
Mai loved him for that, for the fact that he could talk back, he could say the words she was too afraid to. She kept her face blank, but her hold on his hand tightened.
“Tomorrow, myself, Zuko, Father and his personal guard will all be taking cover underground – as you know, the Avatar planned to invade on the day of the black sun.”
“Zuko killed the Avatar though, Azula,” said Ty Li, her eyes wide and confused.
Mai felt Zuko’s pulse quicken.
“He sure did, Ty Li,” Azula said with a sly grin in Zuko’s direction. “But just in case his little friends try anything, we have taken precautions.”
Mai looked from her to Zuko and a flash of realization hit her. She covered her emotion by asking a question. “What about us?”
Azula stood and told her orders from above them, pacing the floor with her hands behind her back, just like an army general. Mai hated her pompousness, but of course, she would never say so.
“I will wait in the main bunker,” she said. “But as my guard I will have the Dai-Lee.”
Ty Li protested, but Mai just shrugged.
“You two will be in the Western bunker, in case they come through that way.”
“You’re wasting your time with all this nonsense,” said Zuko, rolling his eyes.
“Perhaps our family’s safety doesn’t matter to you, dear brother, but I am unwilling to take chances.” She spat. Always smiling that goddamn smile, thought Mai. Always trying to screw with our heads somehow.
After the plan was settled and the others had left, Mai turned to Zuko one last time.
“Zuko, something is wrong,” she said. “You believe the Avatar is alive, don’t you?”
His eyes widened, he began to protest.
“Shh,” she stopped him. “I don’t care, Zuko, I know you don’t want Azula to know, I won’t tell her. Zuko, please, tell me what you are planning on doing!”
He looked deep into her eyes and pulled her in close, his face the picture of pure turmoil.
“Mai, I love you so much,” he said, and he kissed her softly. She heard a tremble in his voice. “The walls have ears in this city,” he whispered. “I can tell you this much: I know my destiny, and I will fulfil it no matter the cost.” He held her tightly, then pulled away and walked out the door.
“Don’t, Zuko,” she blurted out. “Whatever it is, don’t do it. Just come back and we can pretend I said nothing.”
She thought she saw a tear run down his cheek as he turned his head, but then he was gone and she knew he meant not to come back.
At midnight, she paced the room, trying to settle the turmoil in her mind. When she was younger, she would throw knives at the wall to express the rage in her heart. Now she was older, and nothing helped anymore. The rage just kept building. Just like Zuko, she was here for her family, but they had never cared what she wanted. She stalked the room, knowing he was about to do something drastic, but what? She needed to find out somehow.
She was a Lion-Vulture in a cage, every moment was controlled by the fire nation, every emotion inside her was a ticket to a prison cell.
A prison cell! That was it! Zuko’s uncle Iroh would know. Zuko always said Iroh knew him better than he knew himself.
Mai pulled on a black cloak and slipped out the door. She picked her way easily through the streets; she was one of the best trained assassins in the nation, breaking into a prison was no harder to her than picking a lock and knocking a couple of guards out cold.
Once she was in the cold dungeon, it took a little while to find him, but he was unmistakable. The Dragon of the West, the man who was so revered by all the kingdom ever since she could remember, but now he squatted in the corner of this stinking cell. She didn’t believe he was as bad as they all said. Zuko loved him, and refused to say a bad word about him, so she had to believe that he was still a good man.
She picked the lock easily and closed the door quietly behind her.
“You are not a prison guard,” his gentle voice came from the lump of clothes in the corner.
“No,” she said. “I’m Zuko’s girlfriend.
“I see,” he said. “I am glad you two got together, you were always good to him, and I know he was always besotted with you.”
Mai actually blushed in the dark. “Thank you, but I’m here because, well, because I’m worried about him. He’s so conflicted, he hates himself, he’s so angry all the time.”
“That sounds quite normal, to be completely honest,” said Iroh, sighing. “Surely you’re not just noticing it now?”
“No,” she said, frustrated, “I mean more than usual. Tonight, he… it was like he had made up his mind about something, but he wouldn’t tell me. I know he’s afraid of Azula, but I wouldn’t tell her, I love him.”
Iroh looked up at her and smiled with his whole face. It was an exceptionally comforting smile. She could see why Zuko loved him so much.
“It is a good thing to know about yourself – where fear ends and love begins. You will do well to remember this in the coming times,” he said.
“Zuko is a person who lives on a knife’s edge. He wants to do the right thing, but it is hard for him to see what the right thing is. If you want to help him, you have to know, too, which is the right path to take.”
“You fought against the fire nation to protect the Avatar,” said Mai, “is that what you mean when you talk about the right path?”
Iroh smiled again, a sad smile.
“I only tell you to choose love over fear. What that looks like is up to you.”
There was a rattle of keys and the door opened. Mai was up behind the door in a flash, and Iroh was lying on the floor, a snot-bubble at the end of his nose, looking for all the world like a lunatic in an asylum.
“You!” snapped the guard. “Who are you talking to?”
Iroh looked over at him blissfully. “Why, you can’t see him? My dear friend the Dirt Spirit? He is an extremely well-travelled companion – come and join our tea party!”
The guard made a face of disdain.
“What has become of you-” he started, but Mei had him out cold with a jab to the temple.
“I better go,” she said, and pulled the door closed behind her. She hesitated, then whispered through the bars.
“He misses you very much.”
The old man said nothing, but the light showed his sad smile before she quietly slipped away.
The eclipse loomed over everyone’s faces the next morning, and no-one spoke to her. Zuko hadn’t been at breakfast, but she hadn’t expected him to be – he would be with the Firelord underground already. She sat in the bunker with Ty Li, staring glumly at the wall, waiting for the Avatar and his little friends. Time ticked by slowly. She mused on Iroh’s words, and slowly but surely, an idea grew in her mind.
“Ty Li?” She said.
The circus girl had been practicing backflips. “Yes, Mai?”
“Say… say I had a friend who wanted to run away and join the circus, right?”
“No, it’s just a hypothetical.”
OK, sure, sounds like a fun game!”
“Yeah, sure.” Mai grimaced. “So this friend is really worried about the ramifications for her family, but also she really loves the circus. What would you do?”
“Hmmmm.” Ty Li sat on her front with her legs over her head. “Well, I did just that, but my family didn’t really seem to mind. What kind of ramifications do you mean?”
“Oh, just the usual, treason accusations, shame and dishonour, that kind of thing.”
“Oh of course.”
At that moment, Azula burst in, panting and laughing maniacally.
“They fell for it! They’re so stupid!”
“Is it over?” Asked Ty Li.
“Fell for what?” Asked Mai.
“That idiot water tribe boy – all I had to do was spin a story about his girlfriend crying in prison and they were all just putty in my hands!” Azula laughed and draped herself over the high seat at the table. “Oh man, people are so easy to control when they’re in love, it’s hilarious!”
Mai swallowed her response. It was over. Her idea had become a plan.
Azula sat up. “They’ll be taking prisoners on the shore now! Oh let’s go and see, quick! I want to see the look on their faces!”
Mai followed them to the outer door and watched a while, then excused herself, claiming to be bored.
“Ugh, surprise surprise, Mai. Nothing interests you, does it!”
Mai tried not to run as she neared her house, her heart pounding. She would pack light, take some coins from the vault and find Zuko. He was leaving, she knew it, and she was too. They would find the Avatar together and help him defeat the Firelord. She was done with the fire nation. It was horrid, this stifling kingdom of lies and deception. She wanted to fight, she wanted out, and she knew Zuko did too.
She tiptoed through the door, not wanting to be seen. In her room she pulled out a bag from the bottom of her closet. She stuffed in some clothes and her weapons, picked out a change of outfit, then flung the bag on the bed.
There was a note from Zuko.
She stared, heart pounding. No…
“I’m too late,” she whispered into the heavy air.
An hour later, Azula battered her fists on Mai’s door.
“Where is he?”
Mai opened the door to her and Ty Li, tears streaking her face.
“You think I know?! He abandoned me just as much as he abandoned you!” Mai shoved the letter into Azula’s face and flung herself on the bed.
Azula was so shocked at the show of emotion, she didn’t know what to do. Ty Li stepped in.
“Mai, I’m so sorry.” She sat down on the bed and put a hand on her friend’s shoulder, signalling for Azula to do the same. Bewildered, Azula awkwardly sat next to them.
“What can we do to make it better?” Asked the ever- loving Ty Li.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to order some servants around?” Asked Azula.
Mai sniffed. “Maybe. I dunno. I need a drink.”
“We could steal some of your parent’s best fire-whiskey and get drunk?” Suggested Ty Li.
“Yeah, I guess.”
Azula nodded in agreement, and in ten minutes they were toasting to Zuko’s destruction.
“Don’t you worry, Mai,” Azula said with that horrid smile, “we’ll punish him for leaving you. For leaving all of us. We’ll catch him before he even reaches the border.”
Mai toasted and drank with them, gritting her teeth and wincing against the sting of the spirit – and the poison she had slipped into it.
In ten minutes, she knew, they would all be violently sick, so much that they would have to take to bed. It had to be all three of them, otherwise Azula would be suspicious of her. The illness would last a week, just long enough for Zuko to escape the fire nation.
Mai was the first to feel it, and as her two “friends” mopped the sweat from her brow, she realised that this was the first time she’d ever sacrificed anything for someone else. This was the first time she had chosen love over fear. Despite the fever taking over her body, she finally felt some of the rage subside. She finally felt happy.
My Story Commentary.
The heroes journey as defined by Vogler (1998) is a staple of storytelling that is used from Star Wars to Rick and Morty, and while the different stages hold to language that describes more mythical stories (innermost cave, return with elixr) the metaphor of such stages works for countless stories. In my story I have used the model to describe a mostly inner journey for a character I’ve loved for years – Mai from Avatar: The Last Airbender. The journey I have written happens in episodes 50 and 51, Day of Black Sun parts One and Two.
In the TV series, we never see where Mai is during these episodes, so I imagined her going through a similar change of heart to her boyfriend Zuko, but not being able to act on it like him. He breaks up with her and leaves the fire nation to train the Avatar to help defeat the Firelord. A few episodes later, Mai finds him and switches sides to aide him, getting imprisoned for her efforts. I wanted to give more depth to that character arc, because it made sense to me that she would have her own reasons to hate the fire nation. Here are the stages as I have written them in the story.
1: Ordinary world. “They leaned on the balcony rail, looking out over the city.” In these two paragraphs, the norm is established, and with it, all Mai’s troubles.
2: Call to Adventure. “Mai looked from her to Zuko and a flash of realization hit her.” In this moment, Mai realises that Zuko is hiding something and that his plan is going to deviate from theirs.
3: Refusal. “Don’t, Zuko,” she blurted out. “Whatever it is, don’t do it. Just come back and we can pretend I said nothing.” Here the refusal is an inner one, a denial that something is changing.
4: Crossing the Threshold: “Mai pulled on a black cloak and slipped out the door.” Mai has always been the kind of character that does what she is told. Slipping out of the house at midnight is a step over the line for her.
5: Meeting the mentor. “Once she was in the cold dungeon, it took a little while to find him, but he was unmistakable. The Dragon of the West” Iroh, in this part of the series, is in prison, pretending to be mad and weak. Mai’s visit to him shows she knows Zuko better than anyone else, because Zuko has outwardly cut ties with his uncle.
6: Tests, Allies and Enemies: These moments are rolled into the previous two stages, with the prison guards, and then come into play with Azula and Ty Li’s characters. The tests and enemies are only highlighted in her mind, because outwardly she still appears to be on the side of the Fire Nation.
7: Approach of the Innermost cave: “Mai tried not to run as she neared her house, her heart pounding. She would pack light, take some coins from the vault and find Zuko. He was leaving, she knew it, and she was too.” This is the moment of revelation for Mai. She has found her strength and made the change.
8: Ordeal: ““I’m too late,” she whispered into the heavy air.” Mai hits her low point as the worst possible outcome comes true.
9: Reward: “The illness would last a week, just long enough for Zuko to escape the fire nation” Mai’s reward is her knowledge that Zuko is safe.
10: The Road Back, 11, Resurrection and 12, Return with elixir all happen in the same paragraph. It is Mai’s moment of growth as a character, when she has turned from a petulant child to a grown up capable of selfless acts. “as her two “friends” mopped the sweat from her brow, she realised that this was the first time she’d ever sacrificed anything for someone else. This was the first time she had chosen love over fear. Despite the fever taking over her body, she finally felt some of the rage subside.”
Fanfiction is pulpy by its nature. I personally enjoy bad fan-fiction better, because it tells me more about the writers than the characters. Most of the research I did for this assignment came from Jenny Nicholson and Folding Ideas on youtube (references below), and the book Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. All Avatar references can be checked online, although you have my assurances that the characters and timelines are spot on.
Cheers and thanks for your time.
Vogler, C. (1998) Excerpts from Myth and the Movies, Stuart Voytilla, Retrieved 29 October 2019 from https://www.tlu.ee/~rajaleid/montaazh/Hero%27s%20Journey%20Arch.pdf
Bronzite, D. (n.d.) The Hero’s Journey – Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. Retrieved 29 October 2019 from http://www.movieoutline.com/articles/the-hero-journey-mythic-structure-of-joseph-campbell-monomyth.html
Nicholsen, J. (December, 2018) One Direction during The Purge. Retrieved 29 October 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74KAGEe-IdU
Olsen, D (December, 2018) A Lukewarm Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey (The Movie) Retrieved 29 October 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzk9N7dJBec