Author's Notes: For 31days. January 31st: vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.
The most important thing, her mother informs her, is that she make certain that her position is secure. She is expected to talk to the right people and not talk to the right people. Every friend, acquaintance, and ally is important. Every person kept a stranger and made an enemy is crucial. Being at court is not leisure. It is a job. It is the most serious sort of work there is and a single wrong move can bring ruin on their family.
Mai takes this in stride as well as, or better than, any seven-year-old can be expected to do so.
At first it is Azula's friendship that is of utmost importance and everything humanly possible must be done to maintain it.
Then, Fire Lord Azulon dies, the Dragon of the West is a ruined man, and Mai comes home with a carefully folded piece of parchment clutched in her hands, Prince Zuko's seal thick and black in the corner.
Mai is not yet 13 and her entire wardrobe is replaced.
Her mother confiscates her hair ribbons and servants wrap her belt tight around her waist to accentuate the sinuous curves of a nascent figure. Her fingernails are painted and flashes of blood red peek out from billowing folds of cloth.
Her mother examines her face from every angle and instructs her not to ruin her complexion with the sun. Mai hovers under trees and misses pants while Ty Lee and Azula play silly games meant for children, not young ladies.
On her first day back, Zuko flushes at the sight of her and nearly walks into a pillar. Mai thinks that everything might be all right. On her sixth day back, they catch each other alone in the hall. His mouth is warm and wet against hers and Mai revises her earlier assessment. Everything is certain to be all right after all.
Both of Mai's parents visit the palace and the engagement is made official. Immediately, a new home is constructed for them in a spot appropriate to their position.
Mai is not allowed beyond the walls unless summoned by her princess or her betrothed. (There is nowhere else that she could possibly need to be, says her mother, nothing else that she could possibly need to see. There is nothing but a myriad of opportunities to inadvertently destroy everything that they have built.)
Azula calls with far greater frequency than Zuko does. Etiquette and propriety govern Mai and Zuko's interactions more than they ever did when they were just children, playing in the garden, trading mud and flowers, soft smiles and blushes.
Azula is still a child, unconcerned with the smothering clutch of almost-womanhood. She is favored and does whatever she pleases.
Mai pretends that marriage will grant her choice.
Once a month, Mai takes her supper with the royal family.
She pours Zuko's tea and nods politely at Azula's jibes.
Fire Lord Ozai sits silently, negligently observant, with the bearing of a man who knows that the world and everything in it belongs to him.
Mai does not see Zuko off when he is banished.
Her mother, heavy with child, has a fainting spell when she hears the news. Mai's father is away and so it falls to Mai to supervise her mother's care.
She does not feel any worse than she otherwise would. She would never have been allowed to go anyway.
Upon her father's return, her parents have long conversations behind locked doors as they plan her future. Missives are sent back and forth to the palace and one week after Mai did not bid farewell to her (former) fiance, she is called to the palace to entertain Azula.
Mai takes a deep breath and accepts that the paradigm has shifted back.
She realizes shortly that things could be far worse. Azula is not, and has never been, unbearable. She is selfish and cruel and enjoys others' pain. But her dominance, while complete, is not oppressive. She demands general obedience and not much more. Given no other choice (as is always the case), Mai could live this way, complacently if not happily.
The truth does not strike Mai until she is summoned to dine with the royal family for the first time since Zuko's banishment. Her mother is rigid, anxious, and she adjusts and readjusts Mai's attire numerous times despite the fact that she is arranged no differently than she has been since that first step away from childhood.
When Mai arrives and is ushered in, only the Fire Lord is there to accept her obeisance, her forehead pressed to the warm marble floor. It is awful, ridiculous, and perfect and Mai wonders why she did not realize it before. There is no real future in remaining solely Azula's amusement. Not for her parents, not for those seeking not just favor, but a legacy.
She eats slowly and quietly, deeply in thought, and feels Ozai's appraising gaze on her.
"Do you miss my son?" he says suddenly, forcing her to look up at him for the first time. His face and his tone are calm.
"That would be inappropriate," Mai says neutrally.
He smiles and looks exactly (and nothing) like Zuko.
She knows that she was not the reason. Not nearly. Her mother has merely ensured that she is one of the benefits.
Mai wonders at the source of his interest in her, whether it is just that she is young and beautiful and shamelessly offered up to him like a gift, carefully packaged and presented. This seems unlikely. Though far from unexceptional, she is not unique in any of those regards.
She comes to believe that it is these things in conjunction with curiosity. His children's interest has piqued his. Mai is inscrutable and still, just as she was taught. She demonstrates little, not even awe or fear.
He rarely commands her to speak, to engage, though he clearly wills it. But that is something that Mai can deny.
The reprimand she expects from her mother never comes, however. He does not complain of her inflexibility or how uninviting she is, and Mai imagines that it might be an entertaining game to him this way as well.
"I understand why my daughter chose you," he announces one day after she has persisted in respectfully ignoring him for over an hour.
It is either a beginning or an ending.
Everything that her parents have striven for comes to fruition one spring day when her father is suddenly governor of a newly-conquered Earth Kingdom territory. Just like that a mother, a father, and an infant brother become a distant memory, an irrelevancy sequestered somewhere far, far away.
Mai moves into rooms in the palace and, nearly 16-years-old, is engaged for the second time.
"I could kill you," Mai says casually, reclining on her bed.
Ozai pauses in his disrobing, one arm still in the sleeve of his tunic. He looks at her inquisitively as a blade flies past his left ear on its way to ruining a wall hanging. It lands with a soft thud.
Ozai lets the fine silk of his discarded garment crumble to the floor as he approaches her.
"Do you plan to?" he asks just as casually. The fingertips of one hand trace lightly along her thigh.
"Not tonight," she says and stares at his face, pictures him clean shaven and with his hair in a queue. "I just thought you should be aware."
It is the first time she has ever heard him laugh. He closes the distance between them and she closes her eyes.
"What makes you think I wasn't already?" comes his whisper, soft against her neck.
He is a dark mirror, or perhaps a window into the future, of the boy Mai now recognizes that she loved. As commonly occurs in her life, she decides that she can live with it.
Mai does not know who, if anyone, Ozai sees when he looks at her, only that his eyes gleam, covetous, in the guttering candlelight.
A night like any other and halfway through dinner, Azula makes a joke about Mai and Zuko, about the possibility of a cruise brightening Mai's dour dispositon.
Ozai's voice cracks through the air like a whip.
Shock is momentarily evident on Azula's face and, in a single heady rush, Mai realizes her power.
"As heir," Mai says, her fingertips pressing into the flesh of Ozai's shoulders, "I think that Azula needs field experience. To develop her leadership abilities."
Ozai's only response is the flaring of his nostrils.
Mai is relentless and utterly still but for digging her nails in deeper.
"Don't you think?" she reiterates.
He exhales violently, almost a growl, and she knows she'll have bruises on her hips. It doesn't matter. He has no leverage.
"Yes," he says, voice rough, verging on desperate. "Very astute."
Mai smiles mirthlessly and finally lets her body slowly sink down until his hips jerk up to meet her.
It is not that Mai is particularly desperate to see Azula sent away, packed up with her ancient, twin nurses and left to join various admirals and generals on their crusades for some indeterminate amount of time. It is the fact that it can be done.
She pours Ozai's tea as they dine alone.
"I believe that you've developed an attraction to power," he notes.
"It would be very ironic for you to consider that a fault," Mai responds.
Their's is the first royal wedding in centuries attended by no other members of the royal family.
Mai wonders if Ozai misses any of them or if he, like herself, has learned to subsist in virtual solitude.
Ultimately, she decides that he prefers it this way and that is why he prefers her. Mai long ago mastered only being present when she wants to be.
The prince and princess of the Fire Nation, slayers of the Avatar, return triumphantly to the capital.
Azula is the same as she ever was. Mai does not fear seeing Zuko again until the moment she actually does see him.
In the garden at dusk, he is like a ghost, and she is overwhelmed by the stricken way that he looks at her.
"Nothing is the way it's supposed to be," he says quietly.
"Things are 'supposed' to be however they decide."
"No. They're not." Mai wonders what he has seen, what he has experienced, to put so much steel into his voice.
She does not reply, only stares at the turtleduck pond and remembers.
"I missed you," he finally says, hesistant and pained. It is clearly an admittance of something that he wants to put behind him, but is failing miserably to forget.
His hand twitches and Mai can read the desperate desire to touch her. She realizes that she is trembling, and when she sees herself reflected in his eyes she feels ill.
"I missed you too," she says, voice breaking. "Please don't speak to me again."
She runs and, weeks later, is unsurprised when he follows suit. She tells herself that she is not the reason for that either.
Mai is widowed by revolution when she is 17.
She wonders to whom defining the restrictions on her existence will fall this time.