A/N: Apparently I have a new holiday tradition: the Avatar one-shot! (I think it's more to do with the holidays giving me time to write than anything, but I guess I watch Avatar again when I have free time too?) Anyway, my apologies if you're looking at this and thinking it's an update to any other story I should be finishing. Avatar is just so much easier to get back into.
On that note, thanks to everyone for the response to my previous fic here; it really was overwhelming. Consider this a thank you, unless you don't like it, in which case consider it written by someone else! (Also, I should probably mention this is primarily a post-series Mai and Ty Lee character exploration, with a side of Maiko and the Gaang, so steer clear if that doesn't seem like a good time to you.)
Disclaimer: I'm still not quite sure what happened at the end of Korra, so I think we can all safely assume I don't own Avatar. Just having some fun in an innately fun world.
Happy holidays, everyone!
It was rare, in the days immediately after Zuko's coronation, that Zuko and Aang were free to join their friends for dinner without the needs of a royally screwed up world getting in the way. Those dinners were always noisy, cheerful affairs, and really the only time Mai felt comfortable with the rest of Zuko's friends. She could sit back and remain unnoticed while Toph threw rice at Sokka or Katara and Ty Lee debated the finer points of hair maintenance.
Tonight, though, proved to be an exception. Suki—whom Mai had just started to consider a friend in her own right, and whom Mai was now going to have to reconsider—decided to draw Mai into the conversation instead of letting her fade blissfully into the shadows.
"So, Mai, were those your parents you were with earlier?" asked Suki, oblivious to the way Zuko stiffened and Ty Lee sucked in a worried breath. "I meant to come by to introduce myself, but they were gone by the time I could come over."
The others were starting to look up too; Toph had even put down the steamed bun she had aimed at Sokka's forehead. Mai remained unflappable. "Yes. My parents came by to invite me to dinner tonight."
"But...you're eating dinner with us tonight," said Sokka dumbly, as if they weren't in the middle of eating already.
"Oh, no, what a dreadful mixup," said Mai, deadpan.
Suki stifled a laugh at Sokka's grumpy expression. "You didn't have to decline on our account, Mai. We would have understood."
"I didn't," Mai said abruptly. Then, realizing that probably sounded rude, and she really did not-hate Zuko enough to not completely alienate his friends, she added, "It was going to be boring."
"You could have invited them to eat with us," Katara offered. "I'd love to meet them."
It was annoying how nice they all were, Mai reflected.
"Oh, I don't think they'd want to come," said Ty Lee brightly. "Not after—"
She broke off at Mai's glare, then tried valiantly to save it. "Not after, um, Mai declined their invitation. I'm sure they already had other plans."
Mai resisted the urge to close her eyes and thump her head on the table. Ty Lee had saved her life, Mai reminded herself. It wasn't nice to kill someone who had saved your life. Zuko's friends probably wouldn't approve.
Of course, Ty Lee had tried to kill Zuko's friends before, so maybe...
Toph snickered. "Oh, you have to share now, Ice Queen. I could feel that heartbeat of yours from the Earth Kingdom."
Mai hated being backed into corners. Azula had been especially good at backing. So Mai sat there, silently debating just how much she had to say, until she finally settled on, "They were having guests," which didn't answer the question at all and really just made the whole mess worse.
"They were having guests, and you still didn't go?" Toph crowed. "My parents would have murdered me!"
"They should have known better than to ask," Mai said stiffly. She jabbed at her bowl with a chopstick, imagining it was one of her many knives ripping through her mother's perfectly dressed tablecloth.
Toph wouldn't let up. "Why? Were the guests that ugly? Obnoxious? Pompous windbags?"
"No," Mai said quickly, fighting to keep her voice even. "Just boring."
She risked a glance over at Zuko, hoping he wasn't paying attention. But he was frowning into his soup, and while he could be endearingly ignorant of things at times, this apparently wasn't one of those times. She could practically see his mind working. He never had developed the stoic Pai Sho face everyone else in the monarchy had since birth.
"Admiral Cho," he blurted suddenly, looking up at her. She kept her face blank, but internally she winced. Damn. "That's why he requested the meeting this afternoon be let out early! He said he was having dinner with a couple to discuss a marriage prospect for his son. They wanted him to meet their daughter!"
"I didn't know you had a sister, Mai," said Suki.
"I don't," she said simply. Zuko's hand clenched on the table, and she resisted the urge to roll her eyes at him.
"Then I don't get it," said Aang. He furrowed his brow. "You're dating Zuko, aren't you?"
"Yes! She is!" Zuko roared.
"Calm down," Mai told him sharply. "I declined, didn't I?"
"But if you're dating Zuko, why would they even want you to meet this Admiral Cho guy?" Aang asked, still honestly puzzled.
"Former Admiral Cho," Zuko said darkly. This time Mai did roll her eyes, but she answered Aang.
"They..." she hesitated, just long enough to hate herself for it. "It's how they do things. They want to make the best possible match for me."
Toph snorted. "How old were you the first time you got the marriage-is-the-only-thing-you're-good-for talk?"
"Toph!" Katara admonished, scandalized. "Why would you say such a thing?"
The earthbender shrugged. "It's true. That's how they see you. At least I was blind and too fragile to be bothered with such things. Bet you Mai got the talk before she turned five."
"Age four," Mai admitted. It was after the first time she'd ever said hello to a foreign dignitary without being greeted first. And the last time.
Katara looked sick. "What kind of backward nation tells little girls..." She couldn't even finish the sentence, and Aang laid a comforting hand on her arm.
"I still don't get it, though," he said, diverting attention from Katara. "What's wrong with Zuko?"
"He's moody," Toph suggested immediately. Zuko scowled. "Mommy issues. Daddy issues. No sense of humor. That weird obsession with his honor. Oh, right, can't forget the sister issues too—ow! Hey, some of us need those things to see!"
Toph pulled a foot up to massage it, and next to her, Sokka started whistling innocently.
"What I meant was," Aang continued, ignoring them, "how can you do better than the Fire Lord? Isn't that, like, the best match possible?"
Sokka grinned. "Maybe they're holding out for the Avatar."
Aang looked so alarmed that Mai almost smiled. Almost.
"They don't trust Zuko completely yet," she said, sparing Aang from further teasing. "They'll come around. Or they won't, and it won't make a difference. So stop moping, you dork," she told Zuko, who was scowling even harder. If such a thing were possible.
"They don't trust him?" asked Sokka incredulously. "He ended the war and deposed his crazy sister. What's not to trust?"
Ty Lee and Mai exchanged a look.
"Well, see..." Ty Lee began, only to break off and start again. "It's not that simple, really, 'cause a lot of people think Zuko didn't exactly do the right thing."
"Sure, I know that," said Sokka. "But how can Mai's parents believe that? They must know he's worthwhile. I mean, Mai sacrificed herself to save him!" He paused. "Okay, see, I'm hearing that out loud for the first time, and I'm realizing what it sounds like, and now I totally get where your parents are coming from."
"They liked Azula better," Ty Lee said with a shrug. "Almost everyone did. Sorry, Zuko."
"I didn't," Mai murmured, and Zuko brightened a little.
"You still followed Azula for years," Katara pointed out. Aang elbowed her, but she didn't let up. "What? She did. They both did. There's no use denying it. I don't know why we keep ignoring the fact that they allied themselves with a monster who had no problem threatening and torturing and killing people!"
Mai had been expecting the inevitable Azula questions for some time; Katara neither forgave nor forgot easily, and Mai hadn't done anything to warrant either, minus some fancy knifework during a prison break. It was the elephant rat in the room. Now that it was out in the open, Mai was actually relieved.
Not everyone at the table shared her relief, though. It was obvious the Avatar and his merry band of groupies had kept Katara from mentioning it this long.
Sokka frowned at his sister disapprovingly. "Mai saved us on that gondola too, you know."
"Unintentionally," Mai assured everyone.
Zuko hid his face in his hands. "Not helping, Mai!"
Ty Lee looked up at Mai, as if asking how much she was allowed to share. Mai just shrugged back. They'd talked about this, once, why they followed Azula. It wasn't hard to figure out if you knew their life stories, although they had very deliberately kept the number of other people who knew their life stories down to exactly two, one of whom was under lock and key in an asylum at the moment.
"I'm sure they'll tell us when they're ready," Aang told Katara. "It isn't fair to ask them something like that when we've only really just met them."
Katara blinked at him. "Aang, they tried to kill you."
"Capture him," Mai corrected. "We tried to kill you."
"Really not helping!" Zuko hissed.
"Oh, relax," she said dismissively. "She has a point."
"We did chase them all over the world in order to kill and/or capture them," Ty Lee added brightly. "And of course we really regret that and everything now, but we never did at the time. Well, except for that nasty sludge juice at the drill. That wasn't very nice."
Mai shuddered. "Disgusting."
"You defied her there," Ty Lee remembered, as if she hadn't really considered it before. "We were supposed to chase them, and you didn't."
"It was wall sludge juice."
Ty Lee frowned. "Azula wouldn't have cared if it had been boiling acid. You never said—when she ordered me to go clean up, and you two were left alone, I didn't want to ask, but...she didn't, you know...?"
"Shoot lightning at me?" asked Mai dryly. Everyone looked vaguely sick now. Mai put them out of their misery. "No. She asked me to explain myself. I did. End of story."
Zuko and Ty Lee, at least, must have known it wasn't that simple, but they didn't press it. Mai was grateful. Someday she might tell them what happened in that drill ("I gave you an order, Mai. Was I unclear?"), but not today, in front of relative strangers. Besides, all things considered, it was fine. Veiled threats were much easier to dodge than lightning strikes.
"Right," grunted Toph, and Mai couldn't tell if the blind girl knew she wasn't telling the whole truth or if that was just a natural Toph reaction. "And then when you just let us take the bear in the throne room? I'll bet Miss Forgiveness was all over that one."
Mai and Ty Lee exchanged a look. In truth, they assumed Azula had never known about that. Neither of them had volunteered the information, and as far as they knew, she hadn't looked into it much. The bear was hardly a vital military asset.
"Seriously, you're either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid," Sokka said. "Personally, I'm leaning toward 'stupid.'"
Suki whacked his arm. "Sokka!"
He huffed indignantly. "What? It's true! Standing up to Azula is great and all, but if you're going to be dumb enough to be friends with her in the first place, you should at least be smart enough not to make it obvious she can't trust you! Didn't you have any sense of self-preservation?"
Ty Lee and Zuko jumped in to defend her, but Mai talked over them. "No. Not really."
The room fell silent. Mai placidly plucked vegetables from her plate one by one, eating slowly and not saying a word.
"Well, come on, you can't say something like that and just leave it!" Sokka finally complained.
Mai shrugged. "I answered your question."
"And now expand on your answer."
"It's a funny thing, being Azula's friend," said Ty Lee quietly. "You get so used to being scared that every once in awhile, you forget you're scared. You do something just 'cause you want to, without thinking about it, and sometime later you remember why you don't make your own decisions anymore. When Azula came to get me from the circus, I hadn't seen her for years. I didn't remember to be scared, so I turned her down. Then I was performing, and she lit the net on fire, and she let the animals loose, and I remembered really, really fast."
"She can only kill you once," Mai added, ignoring the horror on everyone's faces. "That makes things easier."
"Oh, but of course you also have to make her think she doesn't have anything to gain by killing anyone close to you too," Ty Lee continued. "Azula tests that occasionally. Like when she had Mai handle the trade for her brother. Mai called it off, and Azula knew threatening Mai's family wouldn't do any good to keep Mai in line."
"Why would you ever want to be friends with someone like that?" asked Suki, aghast. "That's no way to live! I'd rather die fighting."
"Well, yes, eventually you make that decision," said Ty Lee mildly. "But by then you've been friends for so long that you really need something worth fighting for to make dying worthwhile, because there's a reason you're friends with Azula in the first place."
"Something worth fighting for?" repeated Sokka. "Like, say, a moody traitor prince?"
"Or your best friend," Ty Lee said with a smile as Zuko grumbled, "I am not moody!"
"Or not getting your clothes drenched in wall sludge juice," put in Mai.
"See, that doesn't seem worth it to me," mused Sokka. "I would totally put 'drenched in wall sludge juice' ahead of 'die a terrible death.'"
"Well, duh. You did. That was kind of the problem."
"Oh, true," Sokka said sheepishly. "Sorry about that."
"Not really a problem. It probably saved Zuko's life." Zuko glanced over sharply, but Mai stayed unconcerned. "Azula liked us because she understood us, and what Azula understood, she could control."
"Mai doesn't like to get dirty," Ty Lee added. "Azula has known this for years. One of Azula's favorite games when we were kids was to throw mud at Zuko. Azula liked it because Mai hated it."
"I hated it too," said Zuko sulkily.
"I'm sure that helped," Ty Lee said cheerfully. "Anyway, if Mai had refused to chase you because you were running out into the sunshine or whatever—"
"For the record, I hate sunshine too," Mai muttered.
"—then Azula might have been worried. But it was something dirty, and that fit fine with what Azula knew about Mai. Azula also knew that if she'd been there to order Mai into the wall sludge juice specifically, Mai would have gone. So in a weird, twisted way, Azula was still in control. She knew she could make Mai do things Mai normally wouldn't do.
"You asked why we were friends with her," Ty Lee continued. "It's not hard to answer, although I think it's maybe hard to understand. Azula studied everyone at the Academy before she picked us to be her friends. She knew what we liked and what we disliked, and she knew exactly what she had to offer us to make us loyal to her and only to her. She could make you feel...special. She knew picking you made you unique."
"Or made your life interesting," Mai added, sharing a secret smile with Ty Lee.
"You weren't going to be like everyone else."
"You didn't always have to behave."
"You had value and worth."
"As more than just a tool for your parents' upward mobility."
"Although spending time with royalty was always good for upward mobility, so whatever you did was okay, as long as you did it for Azula," Ty Lee finished. "You could fling mud or throw knives or block chi, and no one would say a word."
"Must have been nice," said Toph wistfully. "I could see that. Well, figuratively."
"Oh, yeah, must have been a hoot," said Sokka, unimpressed. "Right up until the lightning started flying."
"No relationship's perfect," Mai drawled.
"Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to fight with my friends the way nature intended: swords."
Suki, Toph, Katara, and Zuko immediately protested.
"Why limit yourself to just one?" asked Aang, grinning widely.
"Show off," Mai grumbled, firing a chopstick at him. He deflected it easily with a wave of his hand.
"Ooh, you know what we should do?" Ty Lee said, clapping her hands. "We should fight, all at once! Then we'll see whose skills are really the best!"
"Aang can referee," suggested Sokka, instantly warming to the idea. "Since he has an unfair advantage being the Avatar and all."
Aang's face fell, and Katara glared at Sokka, probably wishing she hadn't healed his leg so quickly.
"Oh, who cares if the Avatar plays? I'm not scared of him," sniffed Mai. "But if you're afraid of a kid three years younger than you, make him use only airbending or something."
Aang brightened, and Zuko squeezed her hand gratefully under the table. Mai tried to pretend she didn't care if it made him happy or not. It didn't work.
"Airbending only," Aang agreed. His smile was now impossibly huge. "I promise!"
"Fine," Sokka said reluctantly. "But no Avatar State either! If I see a single glowing arrow, I'm calling it off!"
They all jumped up from the table, bickering easily as they ran out the door. Zuko lightly tugged Mai's hand to keep her back a minute.
"That was nice of you," he said, smiling that special Zuko smile that meant not only was he happy for once, but that she had also caused it. With that smile, Zuko could have made demands of her Azula only dreamed of.
"Whatever," she said, trying to feign disinterest even as she felt her face heat up. "He was pouting, and I can't stand pouting."
He grinned knowingly. Damn him. "Want to team up? We can take them all down together."
"I guess. Since you probably need someone to make sure you don't almost die again." When had she gotten so bad at disinterest?
That knowing grin didn't budge. "Don't worry," he whispered in her ear as he pulled her toward the door. "If it looks like you might get dirty, I'll protect you."
Mai narrowed her eyes at his retreating back. Oh, he was so going down first.