The first time Fire Lord Zuko invited her to 'come along and visit his friends at the tea shop' Mai briefly entertained the idea that he'd gone insane.
"No," she said promptly. "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard."
She could tell by the way he frowned at her that he didn't understand. Sometimes he was so oblivious it was almost painful. "I've already met them," she said, crossing her arms. "I don't need to go. Besides, isn't this your 'you' time?"
"I want you to come," Zuko said stubbornly. "Ty Lee will be there."
"Ty Lee actually likes these kinds of things." Zuko narrowed his eyes at her and crossed his arms over his chest. She could see his right foot starting to tap, a sign that he was beginning to be irritated. Mai wasn't about to be intimidated, though.
"Uncle wants to see you," he wheedled.
"Then he can come here and see me. No, Zuko."
His nostrils flared once, another small sign of irritation. "Mai," he said, in a low, dangerous voice, and she was suddenly vividly aware that she was in trouble.
She would have hit him, if she thought it would do anything. Zuko looked insufferably smug, but she had learned recently that trying to punch his arm hurt her knuckles and produced hardly any reaction for her trouble.
"Don't your friends think you're conceited, going to a tea shop in a palanquin?" She asked, bitingly. He just shrugged.
"They understand. I tried walking once. Katara gave me such a chewing out about putting myself at risk and what did I think would happen if I got killed, there are still supporters of your sister out there that I decided it wasn't worth it."
"If they're so worried, why don't they come to visit you, then?" Mai asked. Zuko gave her a sheepish smile.
"I told them not to. It's nice to get out once a week. Besides, this way I get to see Uncle too, and he doesn't like to leave his shop." Mai sighed through her nose and looked out through the curtains. She could feel Zuko frowning at her. "Don't sulk, Mai."
"I'm not sulking."
"Sure you're not."
Mai gave up on restraint and punched him in the arm, knuckles or not. "Do you have any idea how awkward this is going to be?"
"It won't be! Stop worrying so much."
Mai gave up on trying to talk to him – oblivious – and settled into trying to imagine where she could possibly hide for the hours Zuko would inevitably want to spend with his friends. The ones she'd spent several months throwing knives at. Perhaps in the kitchen with Iroh? That might work.
"We're almost there," Zuko said eagerly, leaning forward. "You can meet Aang. I mean, really meet."
"The Avatar? That should be fun," Mai drawled, half worried that the sarcasm would be lost on Zuko.
"Just call him Aang. He likes everybody, Mai. He's not going to hold a grudge. He's not like that." Mai grimaced at him, expressing exactly what she thought of that, and Zuko reached over and patted her soothingly on the shoulder. Patted her! Soothingly! She wondered if she would get in trouble for threatening the Fire Lord with a knife. "You'll do fine, Mai."
The bearers set the palanquin down after what seemed to be far too short a ride, and opened the side. Zuko stepped down and held out his hand to her. After a moment in which she considered staying sulkily inside, forcing him to leave her or drag her in after him, Mae unfolded with a sigh and stepped out without taking his hand. "You don't need to come back," Zuko was telling the bearers. "We'll have a ride."
Mai glanced at him with a small frown, but didn't question him, and the bearers didn't seem surprised, just bowing their heads with a murmured 'yes, Fire Lord.'
And with that, he seized Mai's hand and tugged her up the stairs, into the Jasmine Dragon.
The first thing that hit her was the clamor of voices, most of them exclaiming "Zuko!" When she looked up at him, she blinked to see the biggest grin she'd ever seen him wear. She was just beginning to identify half of the faces when someone tackled her in an almost constricting hug.
"Mai! You came!"
Ty Lee wasn't wearing her Kyoshi Warriors get up, for which Mai was grateful, and her smile was as big and sunny as ever. "We've been bothering Zuko to bring you for weeks and he kept saying that he didn't know if you would come."
"He's persuasive when he wants to be," Mai said acidly. They were all staring at her, their eyes cold.
To her relief, Zuko came back to her side a moment later and put his arm around her shoulders. He was followed by the Avatar. She fought hard not to cringe.
"Aang," Zuko said, and she was pleased to hear a small note of pride in his voice. "I'd like you to meet – well, really meet – Mai. My fiancée."
Aang looked up at her for several moments, and then his face split into a wide grin. "I'm pleased to really meet you," he said, beaming. "Zuko talks about you all the time."
She glanced sideways at Zuko, feeling her face flush, and was edified to discover that he was blushing as well. "Not all the time," he protested, but then a voice cut in from behind them.
"This is your girlfriend, Zuko?"
Mai wheeled around, reaching automatically for he knife, and found herself staring into big, brown, vaguely familiar eyes. "Yeah," Zuko was saying, sounding a little awkward for the first time. "Mai, this is Suki, Suki, this is Mai."
Suki. The Kyoshi Warriors. The ones she, Ty Lee, and Azula had impersonated and held prisoner and beaten so very roundly in a surprise attack. She opened her mouth to respond coolly with something biting and scathing, fully ready to retreat completely from this very bad idea of an outing.
Then Suki smiled. "Nice to meet you, Mai! Ty Lee told me about you, I'm so glad to get a chance to meet you!"
Mai blinked. What? Surely the girl hadn't forgotten already, so what was she playing at? She looked at Zuko, who was giving her a triumphant expression of 'what did I tell you? This is great!'
"Come over and sit with us girls," Suki was saying, reaching out and grabbing Mai's wrist, already tugging her toward the table as much as she tried to dig in her heels.
"Have fun," Zuko said cheerfully, and turned his back on her, the dolt, seeming amused and pleased with himself. Didn't he understand how much trouble she was in? These girls were going to rip her to shreds, even with Ty Lee there. Ty Lee who was on her other arm and beaming at Suki as though she were ineffably proud of something.
And there was Zuko, seeming at ease as if he were born among these people. Or at least no more awkward than usual.
Suki shoved her into a chair. "Sit," she said firmly, and plopped down in the chair next to her, Ty Lee on her other side. Mai stared at the faces she only recognized from face-offs. The blind Earthbender, Suki, and the Waterbender. She nearly gulped. "Everyone, this is Mai." Suki raised her voice. "She's Zuko's girlfriend, so be sure to be sympathetic."
Mai narrowed her eyes and shot a look sideways, but then she realized that she could hear Zuko laughing too, and felt her expression shift to one of puzzlement. She quickly rearranged her features to look bored.
"I'm Toph," said the Earthbender, and then grinned, surprisingly shark-like. "Because it sounds like-"
"Tough, we know," said the Waterbender, who still seemed to be scrutinizing Mai and disinclined to even pretend at a smile. "I hope you're going to get over that soon."
"Never," Toph said proudly, and Mai could almost feel herself reeling. Then they were all looking at her again.
"So," Suki said. They all seemed to be waiting for something, and Mai shifted awkwardly.
Suki crossed her arms, her expression serious, and Mai tensed. "We decided," she said sternly, "That since you're new, you get to choose the tea tonight. What's it going to be?"
Ty Lee leaned over. "Choose the ginseng, it's the best-"
"Shhh," Suki hissed. "We don't suggest things." They were all looking at her expectantly. Mai stared at all of their implacable faces. Was this some kind of test that she had to pass? Azula loved tests. She loved even more setting them up so you inevitably lost.
"Um," she said awkwardly, and picked up the tea menu, pretending to look through it. What am I so nervous about? She asked herself, annoyed. They're just a bunch of lower class girls. I'll never have to see them again after tonight, except for Ty Lee, and she won't care what I order. Mai caught herself biting her lip, an old habit that she'd never quite managed to kick.
Defiantly, she selected one at random and set the menu down with the air of offering a challenge. "Peach," she said, bravely. "I think the peach tea sounds good to me."
To her surprise, they were all smiling, just like that. "Good choice," said Suki approvingly.
"That's one of my favorites," added Katara. In fact, it was only Ty Lee who sulked at all.
Mai stared at all of them as Suki got up to go ask for the tea. They'd all gone insane. It was the only possible explanation.
She felt his heat before he put his hands on her shoulders and leaned down. "Hey," he said, under his breath, and she glanced sideways at him. "Just coming over to see you…" And he turned his head sideways and kissed the corner of her lips.
"Ooooh," said Toph, and Mai could have hit her. Katara crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows.
"Zuko, this is the girls' table. You can petition to join but I doubt you'll be accepted."
Mai tensed, expecting Zuko to say something nasty and biting back, but she could almost hear him sticking out his tongue. "I'm just here to make sure you guys aren't telling Mai all kinds of embarrassing stories about me."
"No, but I could tell some pretty embarrassing ones about you," Mai said without thinking, and then realized what she'd said and tensed.
The other girls all exploded with laughter, and when she looked up, Zuko was bright red. She couldn't keep herself from starting to smile. "Well?" Suki said, back with the teapot. "You can't say something like that and not tell us. What kind of stories?"
"Do you need some defense, Zuko?" Someone yelled from the boys' table; she thought it was the Water Tribe boy, Sokka. More loudly, he added, "You wouldn't believe some of the things Katara's done!"
Katara's face, Mai noted with jealousy, only went delicately pink. Luck of the complexion. "Yeah, well at least I've never gone tripping on cactus juice!"
"No," said Toph, "But there was this one time when-"
Mai stared around at all of them in near bewilderment. Azula had only ever encouraged laughter at her own jokes, not this mutual teasing. Mai had never been much of a laughing person, either – she preferred her humor dry, preferably witty. But something about being surrounded by this crowd of people, seemingly so close to each other, that made her feel lonely. Even Zuko was laughing, shoving half heartedly at the Water Tribe boy who for some reason was rapping his knuckles against Zuko's skull.
Abruptly, she felt someone arm link with hers, and started, looking up. "I think I get why he comes here every week," Mai said, slowly. Suki smiled.
"It's a good place. Come on. I'll show you Appa."
"Appa?" Mai said blankly.
Suki's smile was almost smug. "You'll see." And her linked arm squeezed Mai's, a little. "It's okay," Suki said, her smile softening. "You'll do fine."
Mai suddenly felt warm all over, and she couldn't possibly have explained why.