Summary: In the months following the end of the war, Mai is forced to deal with a missing princess, a string of grisly murders, Firelord Zuko, and soiled diapers. At least it's not boring.

Disclaimer: Avatar ain't mine.


Prologue

"Lady Mai."

The guard sounded nervous. That could be good or bad, because it either meant that she was a dangerous criminal who one needed to be wary of, or that the guard was well aware that this whole trial business was nothing more than a formality, and was cautious about showing disrespect to a soon-to-be-free member of the nobility.

"Yes?" Bored neutrality, the only emotion she had allowed herself in the days following the Firelord's defeat.

"They're ready for you."

She stood, and allowed herself to be led from the room (too comfortable to be called a cell) without protest or fuss, even though she was fairly sure that she could have made the guard bleed without too much effort, knives or no. She had once thought that life in Omashu was boring; it was nothing compared to a week spent alone in a room, with nothing to do but contemplate the walls.

Well, not quite a week. They had led her out once before, to attend Ty Lee's trial. That had almost been entertaining, as she had watched the freshly crowned Firelord stumble over finding a suitable punishment for someone who had, even briefly, been a friend. Finally, Ty Lee, who Mai occasionally thought had glitter and fluff for brains but who was incapable of holding a grudge, had smiled brightly and suggested, with every intention of being helpful, that he banish her. Mai had no doubt that her friend had run off back to the circus the moment she had crossed out of Fire Nation waters, and was quite happy for it.

They passed the great double-doors to the throne room, still hanging off their hinges from that final, disasterous confrontation between the Firelord and the Avatar. Beyond it was a smaller door leading to the royal quarters.

There were signs of damage here, too, and Mai carefully turned her head as they passed by what was left of the old nursery wing, happier not to think of her own part in that.

Halfway down the hall they came to another door, with nothing to set it apart from any of the others: dark wood, polished to a high shine. The guard looked at the servant posted outside, and cleared his throat uncomfortably before escorting Mai inside.

General Iroh was seated closest to the door, in a chair facing the desk that dominated most of the room. He looked up from his tea briefly as they entered, and Mai wasn't quite sure how to take the smile he directed at her. She was fairly certain that she hadn't done anything to warrant that kind of friendliness from him.

Zuko – Firelord Zuko, now – sat on the far side of the desk, his head bent over a stack of papers. He didn't look up when she entered.

Standing near the large fireplace that took up most of one wall between the desk and the door was the Avatar. There was no fire lit, and the light streaming through the high-set windows on the opposite wall cast shadows across his face, but she was fairly sure that he was looking at her. She gazed back at him, as coolly as she could, and had just looked away when Zuko raised his head from his work.

"Mai," he said, with a certain softness that reminded her of the note lying unread in her wardrobe, half-hidden under a crumpled pink robe that Ty Lee had sent her for her birthday two years before and which had been sitting unworn ever since. Then he cleared his throat, and his voice turned hard and professional. "Lady Mai. You have been acquitted of all charges against you. You are free to go."

The guard stepped away from her as if he had been burned.

"Why?" Mai asked. It was a rational enough question. She had helped Azula in her hunt for the Avatar, had been instrumental in bringing proud Ba-Sing-Se to its knees. She had even played her part as a loyal daughter of the Fire Nation during that last, desperate battle against the Avatar.

Zuko wasn't going to answer; she could see it on his face. That mix of evasiveness and frustration that told her that he didn't want to say anything, and couldn't understand why she wasn't cooperating. It was finally Iroh who spoke, after a brief hesitation while he blew on his tea to cool it. "You made certain choices during the final battle which lead us to believe that you have no further intention of pursuing the goals of the former princess Azula or her allies."

Mai didn't flinch, even as her fingertips tingled with the memory of a stiletto sent flying before she had even consciously decided who her target would be: brother, or sister?

"Rather that punish you further for actions which are, after all, in the past, we have decided to release you."

From what she could see of the Avatar's face, he wasn't entirely pleased with that, but he nodded philosophically. Mai barely saw it, her mind already busily turning over Iroh's words.

"I see," she murmured, and wasn't sure if she was relieved or disappointed, or why she would be either. "It's political. If you pardon a friend of Azula's, then neither the generals nor the courtiers who supported Ozai have any reason to fear immediate or harsh retribution. It buys you time." And it was safe enough to make an example of her. She had already burned all the bridges that would have allowed her to oppose the new rule, and had given them no indication that she would do so even if she had the means. She was a politician's daughter, though, and said none of that.

Iroh didn't confirm her words, but he didn't deny them either. Instead he smiled serenely at her, as though she would believe the senile old man routine for a moment, and returned to his tea. Since that was as clear a dismissal as she was likely to receive, Mai started to go, but Zuko's voice stopped her.

"What did she say to you?"

No need to clarify who he meant when he said 'she.' Half-bent in an exiting bow, Mai allowed herself to close her eyes, and remembered how close Azula had leaned to deliver that parting shot, their cheeks almost touching. Of course Zuko hadn't heard.

"She told me that I had made my bed," Mai replied, her voice steady, "and that she would burn me in it." She paused, and added, for accuracy's sake, "And then she laughed."

There was a brief, answering pause.

"Azula always lies," Zuko said, and Mai thought that he intended it to be reassuring, even though the words had the cadence of an old mantra, repeated to the point where it had lost all meaning.

She couldn't quite keep from sighing, exasperated. A lifetime's worth of study, and he still didn't understand his sister. "Azula only lies when she has a reason to." She straightened from her bow. "Sometimes, the truth suits her better."