Disclaimer: Okay, new story. It should be better than the first...I hope. It's also going to be long. I will try to update weekly; it depends on how much I get done. This is a Maiko, but it is not going to be purely fluff. It is going to be considered a prelude to When It's Over because so many had questions about how Mai and Zuko got to where they were in that story. I don't own Avatar and I hope you enjoy.
Zuko felt as though his legs were not connected to his body. He was walking towards the great Earth kingdom's throne alongside his sister, which seemed strange in the first place. He could not tear his mind from the look on Uncle Iroh's face as they led him away. As the young prince looked towards the center of the room he saw a pale, slender girl on her knees. She appeared to be carving out the hands and feet of the other girl, whose said limbs were stuck to the ground by rock. As they approached, the dark haired one finished breaking away the stone and stood, shaking her clothes of dirt. Both of them seemed familiar. As his memory nagged at him, he realized who they were. The insipid one was Mai and the other was Ty Lee. Of course, the first thing that came to his mind was being tricked into a fountain with the former. He smiles nervously as they turn and bow towards Azula, her gold eyes only meeting his for a fraction of a second. Her expression does not change and it unnerves him.

She was shocked, of course. Mai hasn't seen Zuko for years. She can't help but laugh a bit on the inside at seeing the Fire Lord's son dressed in Earth kingdom garb and sporting a mess of a hairstyle. She can't say that she doesn't like it, though. Mai keeps face, bowing to Azula almost automatically, averting her eyes. She's attracted to him, she's sure. His scar of course is a flaw, hideous. Beautiful. Azula sashays to the throne, gracefully seating herself.

"That went well." She smirked and crossed her legs. "Now…down to business. We will have to establish some sort of temporary government, unless, of course, Father wants us to remain here. I sincerely hope that it does not come to that." The princess frowns. "If it goes as planned, we should be leaving within a week or two."

"We're going home?" Zuko's eyes lit up. His father was there, waiting.

"Where else, Zuzu?" Azula responded teasingly. She pushed a strand of hair from her eyes. "There is one and only one condition for you, brother. You cannot go anywhere near Uncle." Her voice rose ever so slightly. Zuko stiffened, but did not object. He had made his choice. Ty Lee was smiling nervously and Mai was content to stand there poker-faced. The prince lowered his head and turned to walk from the ornate throne room into the hallway.

"Mai, show him to his room."

Mai glided a good number of steps in front of him; usually he would have been offended. Under normal circumstances, he would have demanded she walk behind him. It had been so long since he had escorts, he found that he didn't care.

"Why are you here?" Zuko said softly. For a moment it seemed that she hadn't hear him.

"So I could escape that sorry excuse for a city." Mai spoke flatly and kept walking.

"And this had nothing to do with patriotism?" he said bitterly, clearly referring to his sister. Mai faltered one step, glancing behind her shoulder at him.

"I know my duties. But no, not really." It seemed to shut him up. She didn't really like talking, even though something inside her was screaming 'You're right in front of him!'

"Maybe this was a mistake." Zuko whispered, sure that she couldn't hear him. But she did. For some strange reason, it infuriated her. Perhaps it was because she had been raised to never question the authority of royalty. In any case, what he was saying directly contradicted everything that was taught at the academy and every word that left Azula's mouth. Why would he think siding with his own nation would be a mistake? It was insane. Mai stopped abruptly in the hall, pivoting on her heels to the right. Zuko watched as the pallid young woman threw open the door to what was presumably to be his chambers. She glowered at him while pointing into the room.

He entered and pretended to be interested in the green drapes. Zuko could feel her eyes on him as if they were daggers.

"You idiot." She said bitterly. His eye twitched and he turned to face her.

"What do you know?!" Zuko allowed his voice to grow in volume. He could feel heat rise to his cheeks. Mai did not seem to be affected by his outburst and simply scoffed.

"More than you."

"Is that so? Did you just betray your true father to a demon? Did you just destroy all the hope these people to have?" He held her gaze.

"Your father, is he?"

"More than Ozai ever was." He put his hand to the scarred side of his face.

"You can't be second guessing your decisions. You chose and it's final." Mai said hotly. A twinge of anger stabbed through her heart. "Are you siding with them now?" Zuko was taken back by her tone; he knew Mai was always soft spoken. Unless, of course, she was voicing her discontent. She was beyond discontent, that was certain.

"Have you ever considered that they might be right? That what the fire nation is doing could be wrong?" Zuko did not understand why he was telling her all of this. Arguing with a stranger is one of life's pleasures…or was it having tea with a stranger? In any case, he did not know this woman who was glowering fiercely. She did not respond, but opted to slam the door and storm down the hall. Zuko hopped onto the plush bed and grumbled into one of the many decorative pillows. Perhaps he was an idiot.

Mai purposely made her steps heavy. A childish way to express her anger, yes, but effective. 'How dare he? How DARE he?' her thoughts fumed. How could he side with the enemy? How could he even consider that his nation was wrong? Zuko had infuriated her more than she ever remembered being. He had put her in an awful mood and worst of all, he had made her think.

Zuko did not pay much attention to what was on the gilded plate that was set before him. He was still much too angry to want to eat. Azula was seated to his left the head of the table and Ty Lee was across from him giggling about Agni knows what. He saw Mai enter out of the corner of his eye. She glided to her place adjacent to Ty Lee, a slight pout on her lips. Zuko suddenly realized that he was attracted to the raven-haired lady who poked at her food. She wasn't particularly beautiful and there wasn't much there in the way of personality that he could see. Yet he could not help but be drawn to her. He'd forgotten about being mad. She clearly hadn't. Mai would not meet his eyes and every move she made was taut and deliberate.

"It got to where I couldn't think straight because all the blood had rushed to my head!" Ty Lee gesticulated animatedly, referring to being melded to the floor. Azula smiled and took a bite of rice.

"At least Mai was there to get you out."

"I thought about leaving her for a while." Mai smirked. Ty Lee laughed nervously, not quite sure how to take her comment. Azula grinned and stood.

"I'm going to bed." She announced, strutting all the way to the door. Zuko sighed and finally turned his attention to the food. He took a couple of bites and sank into the plush dining chair. What was he doing here? The prince put his fork down and left without a word. Mai's eyes followed him until he was out of sight. Disgruntled, she rose from her seat as well and left out of the same door he had used, leaving Ty Lee confused and alone.

Mai followed the hallway that led to Zuko's room. She couldn't let him get away with aggravating her so, not now. When she came to his door she turned and knocked softy. No answer. She knocked again, this time louder. 'Stubborn are we?' she thought bitterly. Mai turned gripped the handle and opened the door, stepping in slowly. The room was, to her surprise, empty. Several conclusions could be drawn; he was in the bath, had taken a walk, or was somewhere he had no business being. Her initial assumption was that he was walking to let off some steam, but as the hour grew late she began to wonder. Mai perched on the edge of the bed and waited. It was very dark when the door finally swung open and the prince entered. Zuko shot a tiny flame from his fingertips to light the candle on the nightstand. When it lit, he was startled to see Mai sitting on his bed watching like a hawk.

"What are you doing?" He gaped. Mai frowned.

"Shouldn't I be asking you that?" her eyes narrowed dangerously. She reached into her sleeve, running her fingers over the cool steel of her knives. He sighed and ruffled his hair.

"Do you really have to ask?" He said indignantly. She knew, he was sure. "Don't patronize me." Mai stood and straightened her earth kingdom robes. She sauntered to him.

"You know good and well that she'll have your head if she found out." Visiting Iroh was strictly taboo. "What were you thinking?" Mai said monotonously. Zuko turned to look out the window, sighing heavily.

"And you'd tell her?" He said quietly. Ah, a confession.

"That's my business." She let a dagger slip into her palm. "Do you remember when we were kids?" Mai looked Zuko in the eyes, suddenly changing the subject. Zuko did not answer. 'Stubborn.' She leaned in fiercely, her nose inches from his. The assassin flashed a frown and pressed her lips firmly against his. It was as if Zuko's reaction was magnetic. He returned her kiss without hesitation. Mai inhaled and touched her lips to his once more. She loved the way he smelled; like tealeaves, ashes, and citrus. He was disappointed when she pulled away, which surprised him. "Do you remember now?"

Zuko stood there, slightly in shock, as Mai made her way to the door. She did not look back at him, but simply walked down the hall to her own room. When she was out of sight, Zuko plopped down onto his bed, heart beating loudly. He was confused, tired, and so alive all at once. The prince tore back the covers from the bed and curled underneath, breathing out the single candle.

Water was absolutely everywhere. Zuko looks around in the foggy, blue sea. He feels something slither past him, brushing against his legs. He squints, trying to see past all the water. An explosion of bubbles surrounds him and he sees jaws racing towards him. The blue dragon screeches and engulfs him.

The sunlight that streamed through the window was blistering on Zuko's face. He sat straight up the moment his eyes snapped open. Breathing heavily, he wiped the sweat from his brow. The distressed prince lifted himself from the bed and dressed, powerless to stop thinking about the dream. The knock on the door is welcome, for it tears his mind away from the nightmare. Zuko opened the door to find one of the Dai Li.

"The Princess wants you in the throne room." He said listlessly before making his way down the hall to Mai's room, presumably to give her the same message. Zuko decided it would be best for him to not be late and walked briskly to the glorious throne room.

"Sleep well, brother?" Azula said teasingly as Zuko approached the throne. He ignored her comments as well as the nagging voice in the back of his mind. 'She knows you didn't!' He was just being paranoid. Mai and Ty Lee walked up beside him, slightly bowing to both royalties.

"I've decided to let you go on ahead of us home, Zuko." Azula smiled. Ty Lee flashed a confused glance at Mai, and then redirected her attention to the princess. Zuko's eyes were wide with surprise. "What? Don't you want some father-son time without me there?" She toyed.

"Ye…Yes!" He stammered. Azula stood, smiling away, and retrieved a scroll for the small desk to her right.

"These are the procedures. You will leave this evening for the peninsula on one of our fastest tank trains. You should arrive at the shore within forty-eight hours of your departure if you do not stop, as planned. Then you will take a small escort ship home. That's the boring part." She handed him the scroll. "You can go now."

"Th…thank you, Azula." Zuko smiled at his sister for the first time he could recollect. She waved him on, rolling her eyes. Mai and Ty Lee looked to Azula, both somewhat confused. As soon as the door closed behind Zuko, the princess's expression sharpened.

"Now, I'm sure you two are curious. Zuko's been cooperative so far, for the most part. However, he did some cell-visiting last night." She eyed Mai. "I've been given authority to eliminate whatever gets in the way of the fire nation's goals. Zuko is an obstacle. Do you follow?" The question was rhetorical. "Zuzu will not make it home, I'm afraid." Azula put on a fake pout, pursing her scarlet lips. "It's not the most desirable option, but what must be done must be done." The two girls nodded slowly. Mai's heart hammered in her chest and she could feel blood rushing into her head. She couldn't just tell him. Azula would have her head as well. What could she do?

"I expect both of you to be there at his departure." Azula laughed.

Could this really be happening to him? Zuko was dashing about his room throwing what little personal effects he had. Dual swords, clink, in the suitcase. Whoosh, his black "stealth" suit joined them. He placed his earth kingdom passport with his alias, Lee, penned neatly on it. For memories' sake, he supposed. His life was changing again and it all felt so surreal. Zuko had waited and waited for the chance to go home proud, with honor. Now he was doing just that.

Mai shuffled down the dank hallway that let to the prison cells. She had intercepted the Dai Li taking Iroh his midday meal and insisted that she take it to him. The agent did not argue, but seemed relieved that he did not have to go and listen to the old man's stories or be forced into a game of Pai Sho. Mai's steps rang in her ears, each footfall slapping the stone floor loudly. She shoved the key into the lock and entered the cell. Iroh seemed to light up.

"What a nice surprise! It's not everyday a beautiful lady comes to visit." He smiled warmly. How he could be so jubilant was beyond her. Mai placed the tray of food on the small table that occupied the room. "What brings you here, Lady Mai?"

"You may be hearing some unpleasant things in the next few days," She frowned, "but know that no matter what they say, your nephew is fine." Crouching down, she put her fist in Iroh's hand and let the trinket fall into his open palm. A key.

"Have a nice trip, Zuko!" Ty Lee clasped her hands together in a farewell. Standing on the steps was Azula, who waved at her brother. Zuko was heading towards the gate, bag slung over his shoulder. He looked back and waved, scanning the area for a glimpse of Mai; however, she was nowhere to be seen. Zuko could not help but be disappointed. He would not see Mai for several weeks, most likely. He didn't mind having to walk to the outer wall to meet the tank train; obviously it would cause a panic if brought into the city. He was thankful for some time to think and walk off some of the emotions that had built up over the past few days. When he reached to wall and came to the train, prince Zuko was more ready than he had ever been to meet his father.

Mai didn't particularly regret her choice, but she did wish that she had planned it more. She supposed it could have been better had she had more than half a day to prepare. Ah, well. She was, at present, sitting in the last car of the train. Usually it kept their mongoose dragons, but it was empty now. She tossed her head back and leaned on the cool metal. If her assumptions were correct, Ty Lee would not find her note for at least a day. It was a start. Mai sighed and tossed a dagger into the darkness, catching it without even looking.


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