Disclaimer: Nope, I still don't own Avatar.
Mai was bored.
Azula and Ty Lee were doing cartwheels, but Mai didn't like doing cartwheels. She preferred her little tree, thank you very much. She pulled her knees up to her chest, roped her arms around her legs, gazing silently into space as Ty Lee and Azula shrieked in front of her.
She'd been given a million and one lectures by her mother how important it was that she was Azula's friend, how honored she should feel to be Azula's friend, and when she got home, she'd probably get her million and second lecture before bed. Mai had stopped listening years ago.
Deciding things would only get bleaker from her current position, and more then willing to endure another one of her mother's lectures, Mai rose, shooting one more glance at Azula and Ty Lee, before walking away.
Neither of them tried to stop her.
Mai wandered around the courtyard, pausing once to let the turtleducks nibble at her fingers, but they swam away disinterestedly when they realized she had no bread. She said hi to Ursa, skirted a pair of busily gossiping maids, and trotted into the palace.
Mai had been in the palace a few times, and she paused briefly to run her fingers down the smooth stone of the hallway. She frowned at the sound of something sharp whooshing through the air; if she guessed correctly, it was coming from the play room, and followed the sound. She paused at the doorway, cautiously peeking inside.
Zuko stood in the center of the room; small grunts and gasps escaped him as he stabbed the air with the knife his Uncle Iroh had sent him from the warfront, fighting an enemy Mai couldn't—and would never, she realized—see.
At that moment, Zuko went still; then, he clutched his chest, and let out a dramatic groan. The next instant, he fell back, landing with a loud thud, hand to his chest, his knife still sticking straight up in the air.
Mai couldn't help it; for some odd reason, she found the scene in front of her ridiculously funny, and a giggle escaped her before she could stop it.
He brandished the knife like a weapon in front of him; deep down, Mai knew he would never use it against her, but she wasn't about to take chances. She stepped into the room, both hands up.
"It's me. Put the knife down, I'm not armed or anything."
Zuko lowered the knife slightly, but he didn't put it away. "Were you spying on me? Did Azula send you?"
"Then why are you here? Shouldn't you be doing girl things with her and Ty Lee?"
"For your information, Zuko, I got bored. I'm allowed. And I'm not good at cartwheels."
Zuko finally lowered the knife, letting it hang from his hand at his side. "You came in? On your own? By yourself?"
"Yes, yes, yes. Are you done, General?"
Zuko smiled. "Yeah, I'm done."
Mai finally lowered her hands, trying and failing to ignore the way her blood heated in her veins at Zuko's smile. "What are you doing, anyway?"
Feeling considerably relaxed now that he knew Mai had come here of her own free will, Zuko lifted the knife, letting the sun dance across the engraved blade. "Just practicing. It's fun."
Mai cautiously walked to stand in front of Zuko; gently, she ran a finger down the blade, Zuko tipping it slightly so she wouldn't cut herself. "What's it say?"
"What's what say?"
"The symbols that are carved into it. What do they say?"
"Don't you know?"
"Not really." Mai ran another finger experimentally down the blade, jumping slightly when her finger grazed Zuko's, and blushing faintly when he didn't pull away.
Gently, Zuko took her hand, running her fingers down the blade with his over each symbol, speaking as he did this.
"Never give up without a fight. That's what it says."
"Never give up without a fight." Mai smiled. "It suits you."
Zuko smiled; then, much to Mai's surprise (and secret delight), he gently grabbed her arm, whirling her around so she was snug against him, the knife out in front of both of them. He guided one of her hands up so it gripped the handle over his own.
"Zuko." She laughed, but it was slightly breathless. "What are you doing?"
"I'm gonna show you how to use this. Just in case you ever need to."
"I doubt I'll ever use your knife to defend myself."
"Hey, you never know."
His breath was warm against her cheek, and Mai trembled, but forced her hand on the knife to hold steady. "So… what do I do first?"
"You have to be able to arch the knife around. Not to really do any serious damage, just to land a light blow. That way, you can scare off the weaker opponents. Like this, Mai."
He stabbed the knife up in a quick, curving motion, guiding her hand with his own; the sudden movement sent small ripples of warmth up Mai's arm. She bent her body against his, letting the arch move her along the way he did.
"That's really good, Mai. Now try this… move your arm, like this. Kind of like a wave. No, wait… a circle. Think of a circle."
Once again, Mai's body seemed to move instinctively against his, letting the knife lead the way. It was almost easy, felt almost natural, as though she had been born holding the knife. What felt even more natural, she thought, was how her body moved perfectly in sync with his.
By the end of their mini training session, Mai's whole body was trembling and achy, but that was nothing compared to the way her blood scorched through her veins. Although her legs felt weak, she resisted the urge to lean back against Zuko. "Now what?" she whispered shakily.
Zuko slowly lowered the knife; now that they had finished the session, he realized he didn't know where to go from here. Slowly, turning his head so he could look down at her, his golden eyes met her gray ones. "I don't know."
He had never really seen her this close before, he mused. She'd probably be really pretty one day, if her mother stopped forcing her to wear Fire Nation dresses and ribbons in her hair. Her gray eyes were wide and sparkled with innocent wonder, and he found himself charmed by that.
She wasn't like Azula. She might be her friend, but Mai wasn't like Azula. Zuko could tell.
Mai's legs seemed to have turned into water, and her heart was pounding so hard she feared it would burst, but she didn't dare look away. "I guess… I guess I should go back to Azula and Ty Lee," she said shakily. "They'll be wondering where I am."
"I guess." But Zuko didn't let her go yet; he wanted to try something.
"Can I try something?"
"Um… Sure. What kind of something?"
"Something like this."
Keeping his eyes on hers, Zuko slowly lowered his head so his lips gently brushed over Mai's. Her eyes widened in shock, and a faint blush tinted her cheeks, but she didn't pull away, keeping her eyes locked on his.
It was soft as a silky butterfly wings, lasted no longer then a single moment, but for them both it seemed to last a lifetime.
Finally, Zuko stepped back, blushing just as Mai was, fingering his knife. Mai stood in dazed shock, wondering if what had just happened was a dream. Slowly, she brought two fingers to her lips, her gray eyes once again meeting Zuko's golden ones. After a moment, she smiled shyly.
"That was… nice."
"Yeah." Zuko was surprised to hear himself agree, surprised that he smiled back, even more surprised when butterflies took delighted flight in his stomach as her smile grew wider.
"Yeah, it was nice."
He knew things had changed, but somehow, he had the feeling they had changed for the better.
Blame Zuko Alone, I am now in love with this pairing.