As far as she could remember, Mai was around eight-years-old when she got sick of "fire" puns. She was around nine before she realized this was odd for a citizen of the Fire Nation. Maybe it was unpatriotic of her, but she always made it a point to avoid cliche puns on any words related to "fire" and "flame." Until now. It may have been a cliche, lame, and very boring way to word the current situation, but she couldn't deny it was the most accurate. Rumors spread like wildfire.
The sun was setting as Mai leaned back against the rock wall of the mountain, staring blankly out at the ocean. The sky was bright and colorful and deceptively cheery now, but soon it would be black, black with the lonely peace and serenity of the night. Only then would she venture down from her safe haven in this mountainous nook, the one place that seemed out of earshot of all the rumors down below.
She and Zuko had not even been back a whole week before they started. She thought she prepared herself for them; she'd been no stranger to rumors when she lived in Omashu. The stories she heard on the street, in the marketplace... "You know why Zuko is really being hunted down by his own father, right?" "Yeah, he fell deeply in love with the Avatar's girl and turned on his own nation just for her." "I heard he gave her an engagement necklace, like they do in the Water Tribes." "I heard she fell in love with him when he kidnapped her." "I heard they've been secretly meeting, so the Avatar doesn't find out." Where did people come up with this stuff? They were as crazy as the fairy tale her mother used to read her about a dragon slayer who fell in love with a dragon!
To her horror, there were now plenty of rumors of the same sort being shared in the Fire Nation right now. Ozai and Azula had wasted no time broadcasting every detail about the victory at Ba Sing Se. "Did you hear about Prince Zuko and the Avatar's girl?" "Yeah, they were trapped in a cave and pledged their forbidden love to each other." "She still can't get him out of her head even though he's the enemy." "I heard he misses her so terribly, he wishes he'd joined her side!" Mai thought they were intentionally confusing "facts" with "their own twisted, fictional romance story." Okay, so they liked the cliche "opposites attract" tragic romance... a lot, but did they have to force the truth to fit it?
But the rumors about Zuko and the Waterbender weren't even the worst part of it. Now there was a new player thrown into the mix: Mai. The things they were saying about her... how had they heard about the hostage exchange for her brother back in Omashu? Of course, the soldiers would have had to file an official report, but then they would have talked amongst themselves, and those who heard it second-hand would be sent into the field and told their fellow troops, and facts got more and more distorted with each transfer. "She was willing to kill her own baby brother! What a heartless witch!" "Didn't hesitate a second. That's cold." Apparently, none of them had ever tried thinking clearly when an impatient, cold-blooded sociopath was staring in your face, analyzing your every move. Growing up with Azula had taught her how to handle her - you had to be cool, calm, and appear completely fearless and in control. She trusted herself to be able to take down the boy and girl and safely retrieve her brother by force, so she took the chance. Maybe it wasn't a chance a noble hero would take, but she was no hero.
So before she even crossed the border, the whole country believed her to be a callous, cold wretch incapable of love. No wonder it was so easy for them to mangle her relationship with Zuko. Ty Lee, to no surprise, hadn't kept their date in Ba Sing Se a secret, but somewhere along the line, the detail that it was all her and Azula's doing had been lost. Now everyone saw Mai as a deceptive temptress who had intentionally seduced a lonely prince into his sister's trap. And why not, when they already believed she accepted the assignment three months ago to assassinate him? The fact that she was bored out of her mind and jumped at Azula's offer to help with "a mission" without hearing any details was never mentioned, nor did they realize that she was first told what that mission was as they were leaving the city when it was too late to turn back (which she suspected was no accident on Azula's part, but who would believe that?). They never thought about how badly she wanted to be near Zuko in Ba Sing Se after missing him for three years; she pulled off the stoic, emotionless act a little too well.
Their closeness after their return to Court did nothing to stop the rumors. No, somehow, that just exacerbated the situation! "I heard Azula's hired her to get close to him. "Yeah, they're plotting something against him together." And those weren't the worst of it. "I heard she can't keep her hands to herself around him." "She can't even comfort him or listen to him." "She doesn't care about him- she just thinks he's hot." "She knows he's desperate for love and acceptance right now, and she's using that to get her hands on him." What did they expect of her? When she was near her boyfriend, she wanted to kiss him. She may not have been the most social savvy girl in the Fire Nation, but she was positive that wasn't weird or wrong. She hadn't seen him in three years! Of course she wanted to be as close to him as often as possible after so long! Why did she have to be his comforter, confidant, and baby-sitter, too? Who did they think she was, some magical, perfect, flawless love interest with no mind for anything but making her man's life perfect? Well, she wasn't perfect, and she wasn't phony. She was human, and people skills weren't one of her strengths. Zuko understood her way of comforting him, even if it didn't rely on words. She wouldn't baby-sit him, but she understood him, and she understood that was enough for him. And she was grateful that he accepted that about her. But try telling that to the rest of the world...
That's why they're spreading all these rumors. They can't stop talking about us. And they can't stop talking because they don't understand us, our way... This comforting trail of thought was interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming up the path. She recognized the footfall immediately and so didn't bother even to turn and glance.
Zuko saw her blush when he was still a few feet away. He sat down next to Mai without a word, knowing he was always welcome around her. He sighed and joined her wait for the fall of night, enjoying (as close as he could "enjoy" anything- he had different standards about those kinds of emotions) the escape he'd been craving from all the disgusting gossip down below. They seemed to have gotten bored with insulting Mai and questioning her motives and started on him. Azula, true to her nature, had apparently eavesdropped on them for awhile yesterday, waiting for the perfect opportunity to interrupt. She only told one person what she heard. The problem was, she told Ty Lee, and Ty Lee, with powers beyond his comprehension, had somehow told everyone. He never would have guessed one conversation was enough to base an entire relationship on, but he must have been wrong. They couldn't get enough of insulting Mai's taste in color (since when was not liking orange a flaw?) and laughing at his "corny, cheesy, pathetic" line ("You're so beautiful when you hate the world.") He was the laughingstock of the country for that silly line.
Zuko admitted it; when he was around Mai, he didn't act entirely like himself. Was he really the first guy whose girl ever had that effect on him? What did they expect? A poetic recitation? A long, passionate, dramatic declaration of love? A complicated speech that sounded like it had been drafted, written, and re-written for a professional script? Girls were never his strong point (Jin would testify to that), but he knew that Mai didn't expect him to be phony or overly-romantic around her. She found that stuff boring. She just wanted him to be real, be himself. Did everyone else expect him to be some Prince-Charming-Knight-In-Shining-Armor who never lost his dignity and always knew the right thing to say? Well, he couldn't and never would be some fairy tale Prince Charming. Mai, for sure, would be disgusted if he tried.
Zuko wondered with a shudder of fear if the gossipers who were making fun of him were also comparing him to the Avatar. It was common knowledge that the Avatar had a girlfriend. Everything else came so easily for him, the Avatar was probably as smooth as they come when it came to romance... ("I definitely wouldn't want to kiss you... I mean, if it was a choice between kissing you and dying... You mean all of you, or just your neck, because they both look great... Will you go penguin sledding with me?")
The red sky was finally turning gray. Mai didn't disturb the silence but leaned comfortably against his shoulder. Zuko put his right arm around her; how good it felt to be next to her after all those years apart. This was how things used to be. Maybe people wouldn't find it so hard to believe if someone reminded them they hadn't just met and started from scratch. He never wanted to go through it again- all that long, boring foreplay to becoming a couple. Especially now; with the arrival of Sozin's Comet so close, they wouldn't have had the time.
"So, what did happen between you and the Waterbender in those caves?" Mai finally asked.
"I don't know," Zuko replied honestly (lying was also not one of his strong points, something else Jin could testify to). "We talked, we bonded, the Avatar appeared and it was like it never happened, and then we battled almost to the death. Whatever kind of twisted version of romance that may be, it's not my style."
"That's what I figured," said Mai.
"I'm sorry you have to put up with all this," Zuko said next. "I'm sorry I'm not the Prince Charming you'd get in a fairy tale."
"This is no fairy tale," Mai said slowly. "I'm sorry you can't trust me."
"Haven't you heard? I'm a dangerous femme fatale seducing you to your doom," Mai said with a perfectly straight face and deadpan tone, as always. "I'd just like to know what I would have to gain from that."
"Forget about it," Zuko said with conviction. "I know you're not some sneaky temptress playing with my emotions, using me for your own sadistic pleasure, and pretending to be on my side while plotting against me."
The sun was now thoroughly hidden by the horizon and the moon peeked out from behind the clouds drifting across the dark sky. Mai sighed, as she was prone to, and leaned contentedly against her prince, who repeated his last words in his mind and thought to himself with a deep sense of foreboding, That's Azula's job.