Author's Note: Unabashed off-canon fluff set between seasons two and three.
Much later, Mai would have liked to have been able to say that it had been Ty Lee's idea. Unfortunately for her dearly held and, in her opinion, well-deserved reputation as the imminently more reasonable and generally sane of the two, Ty Lee was nowhere to be found the afternoon that Mai and Zuko got drunk. In point of fact, Ty Lee was off in the city at the time, having taken to doing impromptu performances in the Lower Ring whenever she got restless and attention-starved and Azula had the Dai Li too busy to get up to mischief with her. No, Ty Lee wouldn't return to the palace until late that night, which certainly served to exasperate Mai's situation in various ways, but could not reasonably be blamed wholly for it.
Mai had gone into the palace's stores. Mai had acquired a bottle of expensive baiju. Mai had taken up residence, with the bottle open and a glass in front of her, in one of the sitting rooms that the four Fire nationals had been making use of since the start of their tiny occupation. Though, if asked, Mai would have been loathe to admit exactly why she decided to do all of those things in the interests of getting drunk for what would be only the second time in her life.
The first time had been years ago, away at school, when she and Ty Lee had gotten into some rice wine. As Mai recalled, that had very definitely been Ty Lee's fault, and there really wasn't much besides the placement of blame that Mai remembered about it after the fact. Nothing much except that Azula had found them and turned up her nose in that perfectly haughty way at which she was so experienced (as though whoever she was looking at was something she'd found on the bottom of her shoe), and Mai and Ty Lee had been inebriated enough to actually laugh in her face.
It wasn't that Mai wanted to repeat that experience or that drinking alone was the sort of thing that she even thought might be interesting, which was something that had motivated her in many different activities in the past. And she wasn't some sad sack who needed to drink themselves into oblivion in order to get away from their problems. It was just that, well, she was on edge. Alcohol was infamously supposed to take the edge off.
Now, normally, Mai didn't have anything against edges, in fact, edges were one of her favourite things. But this wasn't the fun kind of edge, the sharp, shiny, steel kind that could split hairs and made people careful not to stand too close to her or touch her in the wrong way. This was the We're Still In This Stupid City, Everything's Green and Brown, and Zuko's Everywhere Scowling and Smelling Good and Otherwise Making Mai Feel Like She's Nine Years Old Again kind of edge.
Yes. She wanted that gone. She wanted that gone never to return, and if she could help conquer the greatest city in the entire Earth Kingdom then she could damn well have a drink in the interest of preserving her sanity. Of course, Mai had always found, despite Ty Lee's many claims to the contrary, that the universe had very little interest in the existence of her sanity. Which was clearly why Zuko, in his continuing bid at omnipresence, chose the moment right after she had filled her glass to come marching into the sitting room and close the door behind him.
His eyes went from her to the bottle and back to her again, scrutinizing.
"What are you doing?" he demanded.
Mai rolled her eyes. "What does it look like? What are you doing?"
The look on his face gave him away before he could cover it.
"Oh," Mai said, just a little smug, "you're hiding from Azula."
"I'm not hiding," he insisted adamantly. Of course, the adamance with which Zuko insisted something was not and had never been directly proportional to its degree of truth.
"Fine," Mai said dismissively. "Then you'll have no problem not-hiding somewhere else." Despite her relative lack of experience with such situations, Mai was fairly certain that it wasn't a terribly good idea to get drunk in front of the reason that you were imbibing in the first place.
Zuko crossed his arms, an obstinate turn to his mouth. "Why should I?"
"It's a big palace," Mai non-answered.
"It's a big room," Zuko retorted.
"I was here first."
"Yes, drinking." His tone was derisive and Mai bristled. Great. First he drove her to the bottle and then he got judgmental about it.
"What's wrong with drinking?" she blurted for lack of anything else to say. He wasn't even doing anything but standing there being stubborn and she was still off of her game. It was appalling that he could fluster her so completely.
He looked at her as though she were stupid and, granted, it had been a stupid question. "I lived on a ship. A ship full of sailors. For three years. Do you want a list of all the ways I've seen people become disgusting when they drink?"
"That won't be necessary." Her tone was flat. "And, in case you hadn't noticed, I'm not a sailor. They're already fairly disgusting to begin with."
Zuko didn't say anything to that, just crossed his arms and stood with his back against the doorjamb, making it clear that he had no intention of going anywhere. That was fine with her, Mai decided. If he wanted to stand there and stare at her with those stupid, beautiful eyes then great. Wonderful. Whatever. It was a test. A test of her more-than-considerable dignity. She was not going to run away with her tail between her legs and she certainly was not going to allow her plans to be derailed.
Without sparing Zuko another glance, Mai picked up the small glass and knocked back the entirety of its contents.
She doubled over in wheezing coughs immediately thereafter.
"Are you all right?" she heard Zuko ask. She couldn't detect any smugness in his tone, but it was possible that she was distracted by the burning sensation in her chest.
"I'm fine," she managed after a few moments, righting herself and hoping that her face wasn't too red. Zuko had moved closer to the table, one hand slightly outstretched, but when she met his eyes he crossed his arms again. The lingering bits of concern perceivable on his face made something in her chest jump.
"If you're going to drink," Zuko said, and this time the smugness was impossible to miss, "you should, at the very least, not drink things that are obviously too strong for you."
"As if you could do any better," Mai said, hedging her bets. Having grown up with him, Mai knew quite a lot of things about Zuko including the fact that he could never let any challenge lie. Having spent the previous five minutes talking about alcohol with him, Mai was also fairly certain that Zuko had never had a drink in his life. These two pieces of information combined meant that Zuko was going to try to prove himself and he was going to fail. Then, he would have to shut up.
Mai deemed it quite a fine plan.
"I wouldn't want to," he said, but it was clear that he was offended.
"Easy to say," Mai said breezily as she poured another glass.
Zuko crossed the remaining distance, sat down hard in the chair beside her, and held out his hand.
"Give me that."
Obligingly, Mai slid the glass over to him. He gave it a long, angry look before tilting it down his throat.
To his credit, Zuko did fare a little better than she had, though it was probably through sheer force of will. He clamped his mouth closed against the coughing and his eyes didn't water too much.
Mai reclaimed the glass, poured again, and drank again before Zuko had regained his voice. She managed to wheeze only a few times as he stared at her disbelievingly, and he still hadn't said anything before Mai spoke.
"It tastes better the second time," she informed him calmly.
Zuko arched his eyebrow at her. He didn't, however, rise from his seat.
Twenty minutes later, Mai discovered that the problem with only having one glass for two people was that it was pretty much impossible to keep track of exactly how much you drank. Or at least it seemed that way to her. Mai was reaching for the bottle to see if she could determine by weight alone the volume of what they'd consumed, when Zuko grabbed for it first.
"'S my turn," he said.
"It is not," Mai objected, though she honestly had no idea.
"You're a liar," he said, waggling a finger at her. "I bet that's why you're friends with my sister. Because you both lie...and are liars."
"I'm not a liar," Mai said though her voice didn't sound nearly as indignant as she'd meant it to.
Zuko continued as if he hadn't heard and his hand fell from the bottle. "There must be something wrong with you. Why else would anyone be friends with my sister? Ty Lee- Now, Ty Lee is clearly crazy. She doesn't...think right. But you. You." His brow furrowed as though he were lost in thought. "Something is definitely not right somewhere with you and I am going to figure out where," he finished and slapped his palm flat on the table to punctuate his resolve.
"I very much hope you enjoy that," Mai said claiming the abandoned bottle. "And I'll pour because you'll just spill." She thought there might have been some other reason she wanted the bottle before, but it escaped her mind.
"Why do you think I'll spill?" Zuko asked, affronted.
A giggle bubbled up in Mai's chest and escaped through her mouth before she could stop it. "Because you're drunk," she informed him with much solemnity.
He looked mildly concerned for just a moment before he set his jaw in consternation. "So are you!"
"No, I'm not."
"More lies," Zuko said with a certain amount of self-satisfaction evident as the bottle slipped in Mai's grip and she found herself pouring a sizeable amount of baiju onto the table. The puddle spread swiftly and began to drip onto the floor between their chairs.
"Maybe I am," Mai admitted as she carefully set the much depleted bottle upright. "I wasn't thirsty anymore anyway." Mai studied her hands, flexing her fingers which felt thicker and slower than they ought to. That was very strange as she felt altogether very light. Alcohol was a strange, strange thing.
When she looked back up at Zuko, he was staring at her intently.
"Why are you friends with my sister?" he asked.
Mai shrugged. "Why are you brothers with your sister?"
"Because my mother and father- they..." Zuko trailed off and made a face. Mai thought she might want to kiss him. "It's not the same thing."
"Azula's been my friend for almost as long as she's been your sister. Do you remember how not to be her brother?" Mai asked, though she didn't expect an answer.
Mai wasn't certain if it was the baiju or if he really did understand, but Zuko nodded slowly, eyes very far off for a moment before he spoke. "No. I guess I don't."
For a while the only sound was that of the steady dripping from the mess Mai had made. Zuko looked pensive and Mai couldn't seem to stop staring at him, following the line of his jaw and then the curve of his neck into his shoulder, hidden by his shirt, and then starting all over again.
This preoccupation was likely to blame for the fact that when Zuko suddenly asked, "Why did you want to drink?" she immediately answered with the truth: "Because I hate green and you're dumb."
Zuko gaped at her. "What?"
Mai's head felt very fuzzy and she couldn't seem to formulate the proper words to explain what she meant. Not that she was entirely certain she wanted to explain anyway. This was exactly the sort of thing that her previous idea of not being drunk in front of the person or thing making you want to drink would have avoided.
"No, I mean." She could feel the heat rushing to her face and she couldn't hold his gaze for more than a few moments at a time before looking down, embarassed. "You're not- It's that- you're always around and-"
"Do you like me?" Zuko interrupted.
And now her head was spinning. Perfect.
Zuko seemed undaunted by her lack of verbal response. "Azula and Ty Lee always used to say that you liked me," he explained thoughtfully. "Sometimes I used to think that you liked me too. And the way you're looking at me is the same way that Jin looked at me, and she liked me."
Fingers fat and clumsy though they might be, Mai's hand still had no problem clenching immediately into a fist. "Who's Jin?" she asked, and her voice sounded extremely loud to her own ears.
"A girl," Zuko said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"A girl...who likes you," Mai confirmed slowly.
"Well, I ran away after she kissed me...and I kissed her. And I juggled. So, she probably doesn't like me anymore."
Mai'd thought the much-vaunted "buzz" was supposed to be a good buzz. Right now the only buzz she felt was in her ears and it was very, very loud and very, very unpleasant; she felt like she might be sick. Mai braced herself on the table and pushed herself to her feet, stepping away from her chair, thankfully without stumbling.
"Wait. Where are you going?" came Zuko's bewildered inquiry. "Nobody even kissed you."
"Away," she gritted out.
"But I wanted to ask you something."
She felt like an idiot for it, a sad sack of an idiot, but the childlike disappointment in his voice stilled her.
"What?" she asked without turning around.
"Well, I've been wondering...how many knives do you carry?"
Mai swallowed once and closed her eyes. She was definitely going to be ill. "One-hundred and eight," she answered and opened her eyes so that she could turn and glare at him. "One-hundred and eight."
His expression was a mixture of shock, awe, and disbelief. "That's- You couldn't- That is not possible." He waved his hand indicating her body. "There just...is not that much of you."
"I only have fifty-six right now because these stupid clothes are green and inadequate." She felt an unexpected surge of pride at being able to form her mouth around the word "inadequate." Now if only she could stop feeling like she was holding back a surge of tears. That was completely ridiculous.
Zuko didn't say anything, but he still looked skeptical and Mai had had enough.
She reached her hands, in turn, into the not-nearly-wide enough sleeves of her tunic and loosed the clasp on her wrist holsters and set them on her chair. "Six chambers each," she said before propping one foot up on the chair and removing eight stilettos from one boot and then doing the same with the other and dropping those on the chair as well. "For reloading." Next, she detached two sets of double-sided shuriken from either hip where they had been hidden under the hem of her tunic. It wasn't until she started fumbling at her belt that Zuko spoke again.
"What are you doing?"
"I have a knife belt on under here," Mai said pointedly as the knot continued thwarting her best efforts.
"Well," Zuko said, standing and moving towards her, "I don't see what good it is if you can't even get to it."
"I can when I'm not like this," Mai responded indignantly. "Besides they're just...extras..." Both her thought and her words trailed off as Zuko batted her hands away and began to work diligently at her belt. He dropped to his knees soon after, though whether it was on purpose Mai honestly couldn't say. He barely grunted and seemed perfectly willing to make use of the much improved vantage point it gave him, either way.
Mai stared down at the top of his head and tried to think, tried to remember why she was so angry or had been or should be, but his proximity was pushing everything else out of her head and before she realized what she was doing, Mai reached a hand down and ran it through his hair, enjoying the feel of it soft and short between her fingers.
"It's messy," she said, when he tilted his head back to look questioningly up at her. He grumbled vaguely about crazy girls before returning to his task, determination plain on his face. His perserverance paid off soon enough and he coiled her belt up and lay it on the floor. Some part of her mind realized that this was all fairly surreal, but it was not the larger part. The larger part was drowned in Zuko and Ba Sing Se's finest spirits, so Mai grabbed the hem of her tunic and pulled it over her head. She would never admit that she'd gotten a little lost in the darkness of her own clothing for a scant few moments and when she'd re-emerged Zuko was staring at the knives at her waist.
He brought his hands up and traced the belt, fingertips running across her skin as well, and she realized he was trying to find a way to remove it. His hands found the arrangement of folding and knotting she'd done in the back and loosened it. Then, Mai pulled the belt off and let it drop with a clank on top of the rest of her arsenal.
"That was only fifty-three," Zuko said. His hands were still warm at the small of her back.
Mai felt around the back of her head and, after a few near-misses, pulled three short, sharp pins from under the bun at the nape of her neck and let them clatter onto the chair.
Zuko made a soft sound of amusement and Mai felt the puff of air just above her navel. He made no move to stand and wavered only slightly on his knees before sliding his hands back around to rest on her hips.
"Your skin is so..." he mumbled, either not finishing his thought or not having had a whole one in the first place.
It was not a distinction Mai could profess to care about since right after he trailed off, Zuko closed the tiny distance and pressed a soft kiss to her stomach.
"Z-Zuko," she began in a whisper as he kissed her again, but her breath caught when he nudged against her skin with his nose, then pressed his cheek against it with a sigh. He mumbled something about "soft" and "smell" and Mai raised her voice and tried again.
He seemed to come to himself and looked up at her, his eyes catching momentarily on her chest, covered only by the tightly wrapped bindings, before ending up on her face.
"I-I'm sorry," he said, and his hands fell from where they had been resting at the curves of her hips. "I should have- you're not supposed to- not without permission."
He made as if to stand, but Mai put her hands on his shoulders, holding him down while simultaneously using him for support as she lowered herself onto the floor.
"No," she said as she hit her knees, still clutching at his shoulders.
"No?" he asked.
Mai shook her head slightly before pressing her mouth to his. It wasn't neat, mouths open and wet, but she felt it had been successful all the same when she pulled away, and Zuko, staring at her mouth, smiled beatifically. He didn't say anything before placing his hands on either side of her face and pulling her into another kiss.
For her part, Mai removed her hands from his shoulders in order to slide them down his sides and then up his back, feeling the hard planes of muscle there, before pulling him closer to her, pressing their torsos flush against each other. Zuko laughed and Mai felt it rumble through his chest.
"I do like you," she admitted once he began pressing soft kisses along her jawline. "I have for a long time."
Zuko's response, smothered against Mai's neck, was an incomprehensible mumble.
"What was that?" Mai asked, surprised at the breathiness of her own voice. Zuko didn't look up.
Mai threaded her fingers through the short, soft hair at the nape of Zuko's neck and, after a moment, tugged sharply.
"Zuko, are you listening to me?"
He didn't yelp, but he jumped and he finally lifted his head to meet her eyes, face red and screwed up in annoyance.
"Of course, I'm listening. I can't not listen, you're right here," he said, his affronted tone making entirely clear how unnecessary a question he felt it was.
"I said that I liked you," Mai reminded him pointedly, just managing to move her mouth out of range of the kiss Zuko was newly leaning in for. "You're supposed to say whether you like me back."
Zuko did not seem to need much time to consider this fair and simple exchange of information.
"That's stupid," he declared immediately.
"You're stupid," Mai replied and would have pulled away from him if not for the fact that she swayed quite impressively on her knees when she started to and ended up leaning back into Zuko in order to stay upright.
When he spoke again Zuko's voice was filled with an exasperation so perfectly expressed in every syllable that Mai was nearly jealous.
"I was trying to show you that I like you," he said, accusing, "But I can't if you won't let me kiss you."
"Oh," Mai said.
"Yeah," Zuko confirmed. "I'm not good at talking. Are we done talking?"
As a testament to her compliance, Mai merely nodded before capturing Zuko's mouth with her own once again.
By the time the sound of someone very pointedly clearing their throat registered in Mai's ears, she had lost track of a lot of things.
The paramount source of her confusion was the that she had no idea how much time had elapsed. As such, she did not know when Zuko's overtunic and shirt had gone missing or when the bindings on her chest had been tampered with enough to get significantly looser or when they'd eschewed their clinch, kneeling on the floor, for Zuko straddling her on the table. She'd certainly enjoyed all of those things, but in terms of cause and effect and proper temporal placement it was all quite a muddle. A delightful muddle filled with laughter, heated kisses, and hands wandering over soft skin and solid muscle, but a muddle nonetheless.
The secondary source of Mai's confusion was trying to figure out why Azula, who was standing in the doorway, was sideways. This, however, was recitifed when, after closing her eyes and reopening them in the hopes that they would refocus and everything would be properly oriented, Mai remembered that she was lying on her back and thus had turned her head to look at Azula in the first place.
"Well, it's good to see you two enjoying yourselves," Azula said, voice bone dry.
At this, Zuko, who had previously been too absorbed in nibbling in the general vicinity of Mai's collarbone to notice the intruder, finally took note of his sister's presence.
"Azula!" he yelled, ears red as she sat up, pulled Mai up with him, and, Mai realized, positioned her body strategically in front of himself. "Can't you knock?!"
Azula rolled her eyes and Mai heard giggling. It took her a moment to realize it was coming from her own mouth. That was when she remembered that she was still drunk.
"I took the meeting with General Chiang by myself," Azula said as though Zuko had not spoken. "Next time I expect you to be there." Zuko did not respond outside of a vague grumble, but Mai imagined he was scowling.
Azula was undeterred. "I also expect you to learn how to use a bedroom. There are some things I never want to see, Zuzu." And with a grimace of distaste, Azula turned on her heel and departed.
Mai was quite sure that later she would be mortified and perhaps even a little ashamed about the significant lack of dignity involved in her behavior. But, in the moment, her intermittent giggles turned to outright laughter that didn't stop until she had collapsed back onto Zuko, who looked down at her quizzically after pulling her into his lap.
"Are you done?" he asked.
Mai considered this for a moment before replying. "She's right, you know."
"What?" Zuko asked, his instinctive compulsion to protest his sister ever being right about anything clear on his face.
"We should go to your room."
"Maybe she's not so bad after all," Zuko said thoughtfully.
He slid to the edge of the table, Mai still in his lap, and then, much to Mai's surprise, managed to make it to his feet with her in his arms.
"Mmm," Mai agreed as she slid her arms around his shoulders and buried her face in his neck. "Not at all."