When Mai was five, a new brother came to the house. He was dark-skinned like someone from the eastern islands. He had blue eyes, too, when all the rest of her family had pale gold eyes. Strangest of all, he was older than her.
She didn't think having a baby worked that way.
"Where did he come from?" She dared to ask Mother.
"The Water Tribes," Mother said with distaste, arms folded as she watched the servants wrestle Mai's new brother into clothes. "Your father managed to convince Firelord Azulon the barbarians could be tamed. So now we have to prove it."
Mai's new brother yelled something in a guttural language that sounded more like a dog than a person. Mother got stony-faced like she did when Mai did something very bad.
"Enough," she said quietly, and the servants went still. Then she strode over to the washbasin and beckoned the servant holding Mai's new brother over.
The servant brought him, and Mai's new brother kicked and fought all the way.
Mother picked up the soap. "You won't speak that barbaric filth in my house."
Sokka and Mai sat beside each other at one of Father's parties. Mai was seven, just old enough to be allowed to stay for the entire thing. She wished she wasn't. It was boring, and she mustn't speak unless she was spoken to.
She couldn't even talk to Sokka, because her brother didn't believe in quiet. He talked loudly, and Father didn't like that. So Sokka wasn't supposed to talk at all.
Mai snuck a glance at her brother. This was the first time they had been able to sit down all evening, after dinner itself. Father had been boasting all evening about Sokka's progress - how well he understood Fire Nation characters, how much Old Fire he spoke, how quickly he was learning Fire Nation history, how he was steadily losing that barbaric accent. A lot of the adults had nodded and asked Sokka questions, making approving noises when he answered.
Mother said Mai was supposed to stay with Sokka when Father did things like that. She didn't say why, but her parents would fight over it sometimes. Something about her 'coaching' Sokka, but Mai agreed with Mother. How could she give him the answers when she wasn't supposed to talk?
Sokka glanced at her, then wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "You look tired," he said in a low voice.
She blinked, then nodded. Since when he could talk like that?
He said nothing more, though, and she snuggled up against his side, feeling warm and almost content.
When Mai was eight, Uncle Naruzi took her for the summer. He taught her about knives and spikes, showed her how to sharpen a blade, and contacted a few friends of his to show her how to throw.
When she came home in the fall, Sokka's back was lined with bruises from a caning like he hadn't gotten since he'd learned not to speak Water Tribe. He wouldn't say anything to her, either.
That winter, Uncle Naruzi got her a set of knives as a gift for Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. He got Sokka a sword, too, but Mother wouldn't let him have it. He'd spent too much of the winter trying to run off until Father had locked him in his room for most days.
When Mai was nine, her parents sent her to the Royal Fire Academy. She should have gone last year, but Sokka was all wild and strange that winter. Her mother hadn't wanted to deal with the Academy on top of that.
Sokka didn't go to the Academy, of course. Sokka had private tutors.
So Mai went in alone, and all the girls in the class were younger than her. She hated it. She almost, almost yelled at Sokka for getting her stuck with all those silly little kids. But she found him tight-lipped and chalking out math on a slate, red welts across his back.
"You talked back to your tutor," she said, wishing she knew which one. Uncle Naruzi said she needed to throw against live targets if she wanted to get better.
"He was telling lies," Sokka growled, "About the Water Tribes."
She regarded him steadily. "Getting angry doesn't make it better."
A ghost of a grin flashed across his face, and her brother clenched his fist. "He'll think twice next time."
"He'll tell our parents," she responded, shrugging.
Sokka's shoulders sagged. "Yeah."
"Was it worth that?"
"... Not really."
"Let him lie next time," she said. "You know the truth."
He nodded, and she finally crept into his room, keeping the door open like Mother always insisted. It wasn't as nice as her room, but there was a lot of red and gold, and there wasn't any black or purple at all. It was as if they were trying to make him absorb the Fire Nation in his sleep.
"What was he lying about?" She asked, sitting on the edge of his bed.
Sokka twisted around in his desk-chair to look at her, then turned around entirely in it. He rested his arms on the chair-back, and his chin on his arms. "Listen, and I'll tell you about the Moon and the Ocean..."
Azula, the little girl with the smile that didn't reach her eyes, invited Mai to play with her after school. At the Palace, because she was the Princess of the Fire Nation.
Mai went along with it. She didn't see why Mother fussed so. But Azula was much less boring than being at home and staying out of her parents' way. Especially after Mother caught Sokka telling her Water Tribe stories.
She hadn't washed Sokka's mouth out in years. And she'd never washed Mai's out before.
"I've heard you have a brother," Azula said one day. "So do I."
The next day, the invitation asked for 'Mai and her brother'. Mother was flummoxed, but she rallied considerably.
Sokka went with Mai. He didn't say anything to Ty Lee or even Azula. He didn't even talk to Mai. He just folded his arms and ignored the girls. He did that sometimes, though, so Mai didn't worry about it.
Azula scowled. "Well, if he's not going to play... Watch this. Mom, can you make Zuko play with us!" She dashed off to a place where her mother and brother stood.
Mai watched as she convinced Zuko to come over, wondering what game Azula was playing now.
"Here's the way it goes," Azula explained after she got Zuko to come over with her. She picked an apple and stood up on tip-toe to place it on Mai's head.
Sokka turned to look at them.
"Now what you do is try to knock the apple off the other person's head. Like this."
Mai didn't like the way this game was going, and she liked it even less when Azula flung flame at her. Heat washed over her, and she heard a little crackle of fire.
Then Zuko hit her and knocked her into the turtleduck pond. Mai flailed and got herself sitting upright just in time to see Sokka turn and deliberately stalk towards Azula. Her eyes widened; she'd seen him do that in the training ring with his sword before. He wouldn't really-
"Don't you fling fire at my sister." His fist pulled back, and there was a smack of flesh meeting flesh as he punched Azula. The princess reeled back, looking astonished then furious. Ty Lee looked alarmed, and then Sokka hit Azula again-
Mai pulled herself out of the pond and screamed for Mother even though she knew her mother wasn't anywhere to hear. Then she tackled Sokka, trying to grab his arms, then Zuko was there with her, and so was Ty Lee, and it took all three of them to wrestle him to the ground, and his eyes were so wide and furious and blue.
He'd hit the princess. He was Water Tribe, and he'd hit the princess. They'd make him leave, they'd take him back to that horrible ice and leave him to die. He was her brother, and the Firelord wouldn't care, because he'd hit the princess-
Mai started crying as Lady Ursa hurried up.
"Mother is going to be angry," she said in the palanquin, ignoring the tears glimmering in her eyelashes.
Sokka shrugged. "Only if she finds out."
"She'll ask why we're home so early."
"I don't think the princess likes Sokka," Mai said.
"Why not?" Mother asked sharply.
Mai sniffled as she remembered how furious Azula had looked when she came up from the second punch. He'd hit her, he'd hit her, they'd send him away-
She shrugged, anyway. "Azula's flickery."
"I know, dear," Mother said kindly, kneeling down to hug her. "It must be very upsetting for your friend not to like your brother. Don't worry, though, she'll forget about him if she doesn't see him around for a few weeks. Just don't mention him to her, all right?"
The invitation the next day asked for 'Mai and Sokka'.
"Well," Mother said, "It looks like you were wrong about the princess."
Mai was eleven when she started getting invitations from both Zuko and Azula to spend time with them. Suddenly she had to make choices.
Sokka still received invitations only from Azula. He went and ignored her. She ignored him. Mai had no idea why Azula thought that was the slightest bit fun. Neither did Ty Lee.
Zuko had never tried to set her on fire, so Mai chose to go with him.
There were no more invitations for her from Azula after that.
Zuko was banished when Mai was twelve.
An invitation from Azula arrived the next day.
When Mai was thirteen, Father decided they would travel to the eastern islands during the summer. There was a swordmaster out there he wanted Sokka to meet. He spoke very highly of Master Piandao and his skill with the sword, his craft as a smith, and his learning as a scholar.
Sokka went and Mai went with him, because they always spent their summers together, ever since she was eight. She liked the eastern islands. They were pretty and different, and the people there didn't act like the people on Fire Island.
Father introduced her and Sokka to Master Piandao. Master Piandao did not seem impressed by Father, and she thought he ignored her and her brother. At least until he reached out and gently took Sokka by the chin.
"You're Water Tribe," he said, sounding slightly surprised.
"He was born among those barbarians," Father admitted, "But he's a proper Fire Nation boy now."
Master Piandao slanted a glance at her father, and it occurred to Mai that he hadn't been asking her father for an explanation. Odd. Adults didn't usually talk directly to them.
"Which tribe were you from?" Master Piandao asked, grey eyes on Sokka.
"The Southern," Father answered.
Sokka said nothing, but Mai felt him tense. She grabbed his hand and squeezed hard.
Master Piandao looked at her then. It was very disconcerting, but she stared back at him. If someone didn't know better, she thought, they'd think Sokka was related to him. Master Piandao was very eastern island, dark-skinned and grey-eyed. But his face was Fire Nation, and Sokka's definitely wasn't.
"I'll need to test the boy," he said, stepping back, "before I decide on anything."
"Of course," Father said, and Mai recognized his tone of one where he was certain he had the upper hand already.
"Fat will prepare lunch for you and your daughter," Master Piandao said, taking Sokka by the shoulder. "Come with me, Sokka."
Sokka squeezed her hand and went.
Watching Fat cook was interesting, but she worried about Sokka. Father didn't, but she kept turning over the way Master Piandao talked about Sokka being Water Tribe. She didn't think she liked it.
She raised her eyes to meet Fat's. It was a trick she had learned from watching her mother, that meeting someone's eyes would make them talk to her and thus let her talk back.
The cook gave her a curious glance. "Is there something you want?"
"May I go outside?" She asked, gesturing towards one of the windows. "It's very pretty out there."
"Master Piandao does keep a lovely garden." He glanced back at her father, who nodded. "Go and play. Dinner won't be ready for some time."
She slipped out and circled the building, slipping back into another door, and went to find Sokka.
"When you write your name, you stamp the paper with your identity," Master Piandao said as Mai slipped inside the room. His eyes slid to her briefly, then back to where Sokka sat at a low writing desk. "You must learn to use your sword to stamp your identity on the battlefield."
Sokka picked up the brush exactly as his tutors had laboriously taught him and dipped it in ink.
"Remember," Master Piandao said, and Mai saw her brother's concentration shatter. "You cannot take back a stroke of the brush, nor a stroke of the sword."
Sokka stared down at the blank scroll, brush poised. His expression was cold, then he raised his eyes to her. Something eased in him, and he laid the brush down.
"I can't write my name," he said simply.
Mai blinked. "You do it all the time."
Sokka just shook his head.
She looked at Master Piandao in befuddlement, wondering if he had the answer to Sokka's sudden strangeness. But the swordmaster seem just as confused as she was.
"Why not?" She asked him that night as they snuggled in the inn-bed together. "You know the characters."
"That's not my name," he replied. "That's just sounds."
Mai was fifteen when Firelord Ozai sent her father to govern Omashu. Zuko had been gone for three years. Sokka had all but stopped talking. Ty Lee had run away to join the circus. It was just her and Azula.
Now it was just her. Sokka was with her, but he might as well be dead for all he was part of anything. Mother and Father had the new baby to worry about.
She worried about her brother. Her mother worried about her. She locked their doors at night, and Mai had never been more vexed when she figured out why.
As if she would do that with her brother.
He needed something she couldn't give, and Mother wouldn't even let her offer comfort.
She was so glad when Azula and Ty Lee came. Azula was a respite from boredom, and then the princess offered her an adventure and a quest- find and capture the Avatar. Find Zuko.
"Sokka comes with," Mai said.
"Of course," Azula purred. "I've missed him."
The Avatar came to Omashu that very night. He stole Tom-Tom. He wanted the Earth King of Omashu back in exchange for the boy.
Azula wanted to handle it. So Mai dragged Sokka along.
There was a Water Tribe girl with the Avatar. A Water Tribe girl and an Earth Kingdom boy, and Mai felt her brother freeze. Well. There were only three of the enemy, so it would be all right if she let Sokka work through his shock.
She took the waterbender, Ty Lee took the earthbender, and Azula took the Avatar. It was marvelously easy to fall into rhythm with her friends again.
Sokka didn't move. Mai let him be, knowing he'd be better afterwards. It was good for him to face this now, on familiar territory with people who cared for him.
"Sokka!" Azula snapped. "Don't just stand there! Fight!"
"Sokka?" The waterbender gasped, and then she seemed to really look at Mai's brother. "Sokka!"
Sokka stared at her, and Mai hated her for what she saw mirrored in those two faces.
"It's me, Katara," the waterbender girl said softly, and-
"She's crying," Ty Lee said, sounding worried. Her arms were tight around Mai's shoulders, and one hand stroked her hair.
Azula hissed with flames and said nothing.
Her brother was gone. Her brother was gone, and they'd taken him away, and he'd hit the princess, and-
Mai hated the waterbender bitch.
Author's Note: Before you ask, there are no plans to continue this.