ii. suffer with the thought

He's two days out of town, two days away from tight frowns and accusing eyes, when Azula catches up to him. He's as ready as is possible. He never expected the townspeople to keep his secret, and even if they'd wanted to he knows that Azula is more than capable of extracting information from whomever she wishes.

What he didn't expect, however, was for Azula to bring someone with her. While his sister always reveled in being surrounded by servants, soldiers, slaves, people to see to her every whim, she was never one for teamwork. Teamwork required her to consider someone her equal, or near enough. It required Azula to admit to someone that she needed them, and she had never been inclined towards such sentiment. So when Zuko realizes that he's being flanked on either side even as Azula faces him head-on, the surprise is almost enough to distract him. Almost, but not quite because he knows that whoever it is sneaking up behind him cannot possibly be more dangerous to him than Azula. It's taken him years and leagues and just a touch of wisdom to finally realize that the worst threat to him in the world has always been his little sister. And it's not because she's ruthless and sadistic and powerful, though she is; it's pure logistics. She has the most to gain; she has everything to gain from his misfortune.

"Oh, Zuzu," she says, arms folded as she clucks her tongue disapprovingly, "You look terrible."

"I don't have time for your games, Azula," he spits. "If you're here to fight then fight."

She scoffs and the cruel light in her eyes is so familiar that he feels like he never left home. He wishes it were a more pleasant sensation. "Personal appearance is never a game. Don't you agree?" she asks, looking beyond his right shoulder.

At first, he doesn't understand why she would give away the positions of her allies before they'd even moved to attack him, but then they brush by him quickly on both sides before they range themselves on either side of Azula and he knows that, like everything she does, it was calculated to cause him the most pain.

He feels foolish for not realizing that Azula would allow no one else but them, her friends, to accompany her on such equal footing. He thinks that perhaps he's yet to get used to thinking of things from his life before in terms of possible threats now instead of as prizes in the distance, lost things that he's striving to regain. Ty Lee, he can tell, is as she ever was, unassuming, dangerous, and at Azula's side regardless of whether she wants to be.

Mai is the same too.

He wishes that she wasn't, because if she was very different he could pretend that she was someone else, and not have to be distracted by feeling things that he shouldn't. It's stupid and it's meaningless and it was so long ago, but when he looks at her he's twelve years old again--

standing under an apple tree with her as she bites her lip and holds back tears because of something Azula said or did and he doesn't know what to do with a crying girl and his face is burning hotter than any flames he's ever produced as he leans in and kisses her lightly on the corner of her mouth because his aim isn't that great and he's never done this before and his palms are sweating and her eyes are shining and she smiles oh how she smiles

--and in a time and place so far away from where he needs to be.

Mai doesn't answer Azula, neither does she meet Zuko's eyes, but it doesn't matter because the damage is done, and the way Azula smiles shows that she knows it; she knows that she's taken something else, tainted something else, even if it was only a memory.

"Do you think I'm scared of you?" he asks, and doesn't let his eyes flicker to where Mai stands even once.

"Of course you're not. You never were very bright," she replies, her voice dripping with boredom because everyone present knows how this is going to end by now. "Why don't you just give up? I wouldn't mind finishing you off, but I think Father might want that pleasure for himself. He did say that he doesn't want to officially name me heir apparent until you're taken care of. But I'm sure he'll understand how my hands were tied if you refuse to come quietly. I mean, you've never bested me in your life. There's no way you could be expected to survive against all three of us," she finishes with a smile, puts a hand on Mai's shoulder and trails it down her arm before tangling her fingers with the other girl's. Mai still won't look at him.

He draws his swords without a word. As he charges, he notices how Azula's nails play along Mai's wrist until the last possible moment, and he's not really surprised.

Azula's only ever wanted what was his.