For Rawles. Because she is awesome.
Mai barely remembered anything about the first time they saw each other again. Partly because she hadn't expected it. She and Ty Lee had been put in charge of the palace while Azula led the Dai Li into the caves beneath them, and very little had happened afterward. Yes, the Avatar's friends and the Earth King had escaped, but Mai was glad to see the bear go, at least, and she knew Azula wouldn't hold it against them. She wanted the throne and the city, not its puppet king.
She had just finished prying Ty Lee's hands and feet out of the floor when Azula returned. She straightened, tucking her knife back into her sleeve as Ty Lee scowled and rubbed her wrists. But a droll comment about playing in the dirt died on her lips when Zuko stepped through the doorway.
She almost didn't recognize him. He was dressed in the tattered remains of a commoner's finery, his hair cropped and shaggy, his face bowed toward the floor as Azula strutted up the dais and settled herself on the throne. Curious, Ty Lee cartwheeled over to him, ending in a backbend with her face directly in his line of sight.
"Zuzu!" she cried, flipping upright again.
"Don't call me that," he said dully. Looking up and past her, his eyes connected with Mai's across the room.
"Hello, Zuko," said Mai, her voice soft and low. "You look good."
Zuko barked out a single laugh, harsh and mirthless. It echoed in the high-ceilinged chamber.
She hadn't seen him since before the duel with his father. And while Azula had later described it to her with relish, and she had seen the wanted posters at every crossroads since leaving "New Ozai," neither of these things had prepared her for the reality of his fate.
Zuko had long fascinated her because of his imperfections. There were many, to be certain, and they had kept him on the fringes of palace life. Where Azula was a shining blade cast in her father's image, cold and polished and deadly, Zuko's edge was dulled by his shortcomings. It was hard to imagine him seated on the throne someday, larger than life behind a curtain of flame. Always struggling, always awkward, never giving up but never quite succeeding, Zuko was thoroughly human. And that was why Mai liked him.
In fact, the only thing about him that she had found disappointing was his face. Smooth, pale, flawless, regal...and utterly dull. Though his barely-disguised panic every time he saw his sister had made it a bit more bearable.
Azula had spent many hours since her reunion with Mai and Ty Lee mocking her brother's ugliness. But she had, for once in her life, entirely missed the point. Zuko was broken; had been so ever since his mother had stolen away in the night. But now the damage to his soul showed on his skin as well. And it was hideous...nauseating...shameful...
For the first week after the battle with the Avatar, Zuko was like a ghost. He ate meals in his room, practiced firebending alone in the courtyard at night, answered all questions as briefly as possible and left all audiences with his sister as quickly as he could. The only reason Mai saw him at all was because Azula never tired of torturing him.
"I haven't played with darling Zuzu since yesterday," she purred one afternoon, lounging on the throne as she examined her nails in the lamplight. "I think it would do him good to get some exercise, don't you?"
"Do you want me to find him for you, Azula?" Ty Lee chirped.
"No." Azula turned to Mai and smiled. "I'm sure he'd prefer your company."
"No doubt," said Mai drily, though her heart quickened at the thought of being alone with him.
"Tell him to meet me in the courtyard in an hour," said Azula, rising gracefully to her feet. "You can do what you like with him until then."
Mai's face burned as she ducked out of throne room, and she spent most of the long walk to Zuko's chambers regaining her composure. He hadn't spoken a word to her since his return, his single bark of laughter the only response to anything she'd said. She had watched him cautiously from afar, noted the heaviness of his walk and the sallow cast to his skin, but assumed he was merely depressed about Iroh's betrayal. A weakness for flawed companions was something she could sympathize with, so she'd left him to his thoughts.
But now the choice had been taken away from her. Such was the way of things when Azula was involved.
Mai stood in front of his door for almost a minute before she raised her hand and rapped it with her knuckles. There was no answer. She was trying to decide if she should knock again when the door swung open. Zuko had changed into Dai Li robes and slicked back his hair in the Fire Nation style, but his face was just as she remembered. It took most of her considerable willpower not to stare.
"Azula wants you in the courtyard," Mai drawled, stepping aside to let him pass with a sarcastic flourish. "Hope that outfit's fire proof."
"Nothing is Azula-proof," Zuko muttered. He stalked down the hall ahead of her, and though she was careful not to be obvious about it she had to jog to catch up.
"I haven't been out of the palace in weeks," she moaned conversationally, noting how stiff his shoulders were as he walked. "It's so dull that my brain's starting to leak out my ears."
"Don't worry," said Zuko flatly. "It won't last long. Nothing does with her."
"I know, isn't it great?" Mai chuckled, a rare smile on her lips. "Now that the Dai Li's in Azula's pocket, we can set up a new government and ditch this place. As long as we don't have to wear those tacky Kyoshi outfits anymore-"
She nearly ran into him when he stopped abruptly in the middle of the corridor. He turned to face her, his fists clenched at his sides. "You don't get it, do you?" he spat, yellow eyes boring into her own.
Mai choked on her words. When they were children, Zuko had been annoyed, or petulant, or embarrassed...sometimes, he'd even been angry. But only with Azula. Around Mai, it had always been shyness and hesitant smiles. He had never looked at her, spoken to her, like this.
"You're just...upset about your uncle," she said, averting her eyes. "Don't take it out on me, it's not my-"
"You don't understand anything," Zuko hissed. "You think this is fun? Running around with Azula, playing at conquerer, watching the commoners grovel at your feet?"
"A little groveling never hurt anyone," she muttered, taking a chance on levity.
Zuko's scowl deepened, his nostrils flaring. She could feel the air grow hot between them. "This isn't a GAME, Mai," he snarled. "These are people's LIVES. Azula's insane-"
"I know that," said Mai quietly. "I'm not an idiot."
"Azula's insane," Zuko repeated, as if she hadn't spoken. "But I'd expected more of you."
"Like you're any better!" Mai snapped, shocked into real anger. "I don't see YOU doing anything to stop her."
"You're right," Zuko muttered. He turned to walk away, his soft shoes silent on the marble floors. "You don't see."