AN: Avatar TLA does not belong to me, obviously.
So in my brief time of lurking around in the ATLA fandom, I've encountered a remarkable level of antagonism toward the Zuko/Mai canon pairing, and just generally toward Mai as a character. I get the impression it's because it stands in the way of 'Zutara' and because it is a 'boring' pairing. I kind of think that's a little shallow-minded, tbh, so I thought I'd make a reluctant foray into romance-ish writing, and put my own spin on both Mai and her relationship with Zuko.
Hope you enjoy.
It was no secret that her father had hoped Mai would at least turn out to be a firebender, after the letdown of not being a son. For all of his political skill, Lord Heizo was not very good at hiding his disappointment when she began walking and talking but showed no signs of special affinity with the Fire Nation's namesake element.
It had hardly been a likely thing. Heizo's mother had been a bender, and so was his brother, but the ability had never shown so much as a spark of itself in him, and the last firebender on Lady Jien's side was Mai's great-grandfather. If anything it was a bit of a long shot.
"It's alright," her mother would tell her, "You're so, so beautiful. You don't need to be a firebender to bring honor to the family."
From this Mai gathered that she ought to be upset, or disappointed that she had been cheated of her destiny, or something like that. Other than irritation at the fact that her mother occasionally tried to console her about it, however, Mai's general response to her failure to be what she was hoped to be (namely, a boy and a warrior) was more along the lines of,
This bland acceptance was also her response to etiquette lessons, tutoring, and any gown her mother put in front of her or instruction her father gave her. There was nothing to protest, not really, in Mai's opinion. Mai didn't like people very much, so it wasn't as though she wanted to be out with friends, and though lessons and tutoring were boring, so was sitting around the house not in lessons or in tutoring, and as she had no preference she might as well be doing the one that would result in her father getting her this or that trinket she wanted. The only real preference she had in clothing was 'not pastels', which was never a problem because after one look at her four-year-old daughter in the pale yellow dress chosen for dinner one evening, Lady Jien declared that it made her look sickly and afterward stuck to darker hues, which, she claimed, 'show off your striking complexion, dear.'
As for her father's instructions, they were more or less 'Look pretty, be polite, and don't speak until someone asks you a question.' Being pretty took no effort, poor etiquette annoyed her, and it wasn't as though she had anything to say to her parents' boring, stuffy dinner guests.
That was how Mai reasoned it to herself, anyway.
And if she didn't seem to her mother to be especially happy with her lot, she didn't seem especially unhappy either, and any attempt to comfort her was met with blank indifference. Well, she was a strange, brooding child, Lady Jien often thought, but despite not being the perfect son, she was turning out to be the perfect daughter: a pretty doll that could be used to further her Lord Heizo's career and bring honor to the family.
Mai's father was one of the wealthiest and more powerful nobles in the Fire Nation capital. His ambition was to be able to adjust that to 'one of the wealthiest and most powerful'. As a child with only a basic grasp of politics, Mai's understanding of the situation was that this meant if she wanted something, she had only to behave and do what Father said. Likewise, if Father wanted something, he had to behave and do what the Firelord said. The best way to obtain just about anything, no matter who you were, was passive obedience: sit down, shut up, and agree with what you're told.
So that's what she did. Life was simple, boring, and mechanical, and that was how it was supposed to be.
Then came Azula.
"Mai," said her mother one day, after she and her father had sat her down in the parlor, "We have some very exciting news."
The last time there had been 'exciting news', it had been something about a Lord So-and-So and a something-or-other that had been so exciting that Mai couldn't even remember it now. Not remotely interested, she sat poised on her cushion with her back held straight as she had been taught and her hands tucked into her sleeves to keep them warm, and waited to hear what was so great this time.
"The Firelord's son has accorded us a very high honor," Heizo said. "As you know, his daughter Azula is about your age. Lord Ozai has graciously condescended to offer you his hospitality at the Palace so that you may be her companion."
This was not at all what Mai had expected to hear. This actually directly affected her, required her to do something other than sit and be pretty. Go the Palace. Be the Princess's companion. Several thoughts crossed her mind, among them:
Do I have to?
Will I have to talk to her?
'High honor' sound like a pretty way of saying 'orders.'
At least the Palace is somewhere else. Maybe it won't be boring.
"You will be brought to the Palace on the second, third, and fifthdays of every week to spend the afternoon," her father went on, beaming proudly. "And any other time that the Princess requests your presence."
Goodie. Another person whose orders she was to follow. Mai wasn't going to form an opinion of the situation until she had had a chance to observe what it would actually entail, but she didn't much care for the idea of being at someone's beck and call.
Apparently this lack of enthusiasm was not befitting of all the 'high honor' involved, because her mother looked concerned, and her father's smile dropped into a stern frown.
"Mai, I wish you could take a more positive attitude toward this. This is not an opportunity that is extended to just anyone. Your friendship with the Firelord's granddaughter strengthens our ties to Palace. I expect that you will not spoil this prospect with a sour outlook."
"Yes, Father," Mai said, putting all of her 'positive attitude' into it, the result of which was a barely perceptible lift in pitch that almost immediately sank back down to her usual low murmur.
"It's normal to be nervous, dear," Jien told her repeatedly during the palanquin ride to the Palace.
"I'm not nervous, Mother."
Mai wasn't nervous. What she was was a little chilly and half-heartedly interested and increasingly irritated with her mother, who kept clasping and unclasping her hands and telling Mai not to be nervous every ten seconds.
Shrugging a little deeper into her mantle and wishing it would not be inappropriate to rub her hands together to warm them, Mai tuned her mother out and watched the approaching palace, red-flowered and hazy through the sheer palanquin curtains. She had been in the Palace's Great Plaza before, dragged along by her parents to attend the announcements of great military victories and for the Solstice parades, but not inside the Palace itself. It was one of the three homes in the capital larger their house, she knew (her father liked to mention it) but it seemed to Mai that it was rather cheating, since much of the Palace complex was the Temple and official meeting chambers and other places where grownups did boring stuff, and not actual living space. Still, it was impressively large and ornate, and she had to concede that it didn't seem so bad thus far.
"Now, mind your manners," her mother murmured to her as the palanquin slowed and began to climb the great front steps of the Palace.
Here it came again. As if they hadn't explained enough.
"Remember that this is the Princess, and not your peer. Her cousin will be Firelord someday. I want you to show her the highest respect. We wouldn't want to offend the Firelord or any of his household. You must be on your best behavior and make a good impression."
I know, Mother. You and Father both have told me these things a dozen times. I'm not deaf, Mai wanted very badly to say, but that would be impolite, and would no doubt earn her as much of a lecture as her mother had time for before they arrived.
"And Mai, do try to have fun," her mother said suddenly, patting her arm. "I'm sure you will enjoy yourself if you give this a chance."
Mai glanced up through her thick bangs. Mother was smiling, but it was an anxious smile, matched with a look in her eyes that seemed to say she wasn't sure quite how to read the daughter she'd raised to be this quiet little thing, and it bothered her. It was a helpless sort of look, and Mai found herself disapproving slightly of such a timid expression on the face of someone who claimed to aspire to power. It was inappropriate.
And honestly, she found it invasive whenever Mother suddenly wanted Mai to be happy, on top of everything else she asked of her.
Mildly alarmed at the sudden spike of anger that jolted up through her, Mai took a breath and let it out, then nodded dutifully.
Lady Jien wasn't quite satisfied with that response, but it was the only one Mai had, so she gave her daughter's arm another pat and waved daintily through the palanquin curtains while the girl exchanged bows with the chamberlain.
Mai expected actually meeting the Princess would be anticlimactic. It was not.
For starters, it turned out that she was not the only nobleman's daughter who had been summoned to entertain the Princess. She had caught glimpses of the royal family before at Palace ceremonies and parades, and the girl waiting in the inner courtyard where the chamberlain led Mai was not Azula. Her hair was lighter and longer, and she was wearing a lot of pink. Mai did not know the Princess personally but she always seemed from a distance to be a disciplined sort of person. She had difficulty imagining her in the sort of confection this girl was sporting.
Her immediate reaction was Ugh, I have to talk to two people at once? and then At least there will be someone else to distract Azula if I don't want to say anything. Mai didn't like things as messy as mixed feelings, so she decided the two canceled each other out and she was quite neutral about this other girl, until she opened her mouth.
"Hi! I'm Ty Lee. You must be Mai! I love your hair, it's so pretty."
"…Thanks," Mai managed, only her strict etiquette training keeping her from backing away several steps. This sort of enthusiasm was…unsightly. Ty Lee's smile was far too broad to be normal.
Mai bowed slightly so she could take break from seeing it, and the other girl bobbed back energetically. "Nice to meet you."
The courtyard garden was actually quite nice, with a pond, a fountain, several red maples in fall colors, and elegantly sculpted seats arranged among the flowerbeds and grass lawns. Stepping smoothly around Miss Smiley-Face, Mai made for one of the seats. Princess Azula would be brought to meet them soon, and she wanted to be composed for it. She was expected to make a good impression, after all.
To her annoyance, Ty Lee bounced along after her.
"I'm so excited to meet Princess Azula, aren't you? She's so beautiful, and I've heard she's amazingly talented. This is going to be so much fun. I think we'll all be best friends! Won't it be great?"
"Lovely," Mai murmured, sitting primly on a bench carved with coiled dragons and tucking her cold hands into her sleeves.
"What do you think she's like? I bet she's really nice." For no apparent reason, Ty Lee punctuated this declaration with a twirl, pink ruffles and long braid flying. Just her existence was wearing Mai out.
All of a sudden the twirling stopped and Ty Lee swooped down on her, making Mai lean back in alarm before she could control her posture. "Say, are you alright? You seem kind of down!"
"I'm fine, thank you," Mai said coolly, and hoped fervently that either Azula would show up soon or this bizarre girl would take the hint and get out of her space. Not that Mai had a clear idea of what she would do if she didn't, because she was supposed to behave, and either pushing Ty Lee or saying something mean to make her back off would certainly fall under the heading of 'not behaving.' If she was here, it was because she was also a nobleman's daughter (however poorly she might show it, with her unrestrained chatter and capering about), and Father would be angry with her if she offended Ty Lee's parents by offending their daughter.
"So…you must be the new playmates," a voice drawled from behind Ty Lee, making the girl whirl around again like a top.
"Princess Azula!" With speed that made Mai dizzy, Ty Lee plunged into a low bow.
"We are honored, Princess," Mai said, rising and bowing rather more sedately.
"As you should be," said the princess matter-of-factly.
Mai lifted her eyes to find that Azula was quite blatantly sizing them up. Mouth tied sideways in a little smirk and arms crossed over her chest, the princess examined them the same way she had seen Father examine rhinos or eelhounds he was considering for purchase. Mai took the opportunity to inconspicuously return the favor.
She was a little bit shorter than Mai, but she carried herself like she was much taller. Sharp-eyed and sharp-featured, with eyes that were inexplicably cold, though she knew Azula was a firebender. Mai was not one to make snap judgments about people, but she decided for now that the Princess carried the authority of her title rather than the other way around, and she approved of that.
Apparently the initial approval was mutual. "Well, I suppose you'll do," was the verdict. "Which one of you is Mai and which is Ty Lee?"
"I'm Ty Lee and this is Mai," Miss Smiley-Face chirped, flourishing to herself and then to the other. Mai suppressed a grimace.
"Charmed, I'm sure," the princess said, then glanced sidelong at Mai with a loaded expression. It was at that point that Mai realized that being Azula's companion would definitely not involve the sitting around and talking quietly about boring things and drinking tea that she had imagined as the most likely scenario.
In that brief look, Azula said plainly that she noticed the exuberance in Ty Lee that Mai had found so off-putting, but that unlike Mai, she found it amusing. Not amusing in an 'oh, isn't she cute?' sort of way, but in a scornful, kind of mean way. Princess Azula was laughing at Ty Lee, without the other girl seeming to realize it, and Mai was being invited to join her.
Well, obviously she couldn't offend the princess, but she didn't find Ty Lee amusing, even in a mocking way, and there was still Ty Lee's parents to consider. Until she at least found out what their position in society was, her father would be displeased if she immediately alienated the other girl. So Mai offered up a slight, noncommittal shrug. That seemed to satisfy Azula for now.
Opaque dark-amber eyes glinting, the princess uncrossed her arms and planted her hands on her hips. "Well then, let's get to know each other, girls."
No, this would be about as boring as holding a tigersnake by the tail.
"I don't understand," Ty Lee was saying a short while later, her expressive face crinkled with worry. "Why are we doing this?"
"It's a test, Ty Lee," Azula told her. She had begun to adopt a slightly patronizing tone whenever talking to the other girl, talking just a hair slower and enunciating just a tiny bit more than normal. Mai had not yet quite decided what she thought of the princess's apparent enjoyment of tugging people around. While she could agree that Ty Lee seemed a little on the slow side, and as the Firelord's granddaughter Azula could pretty much do whatever she wanted, teasing her like that seemed like something of a waste of effort to Mai.
Like Lord Heizo, Azula had a drive to act on her impulses that Mai had, frankly, never indulged in. But Father seemed to move as though pulled, drawn by power like a dragonmoth to a torch, while Azula's motivation seemed to come from nowhere except within her own mind. Instead of being pulled she pushed, and now she was pushing Mai and Ty Lee, for no other reason than to see what they would do.
Perhaps it was just a part of being royalty, Mai supposed. After all, they were on top; she obeyed Father and Father obeyed the Firelord, but it wasn't as though Firelord Azulon had anyone to answer to.
"B-but…what if we get in trouble?"
Azula raised her eyebrows. "You can't get in trouble if you don't get caught."
The three of them were ducked behind a pillar in the great entrance hall to the Firelord's Throne Room. Mai was not entirely clear on the room-by-room policies of the Palace, but she was fairly certain that they were not supposed to be here, Princess or not.
"Look, Ty Lee, all I'm asking you to do is to go touch the door. It won't even take a whole minute. Or are you too scared to do this for me?" Azula said with a hint of impatience.
"No, I mean—of course I will," Ty Lee said hurriedly.
"Well then, what are you waiting for?"
Watching the other girl scamper quickly down the hall from the safety of their pillar, Mai began to feel a touch of apprehension. Perhaps being Azula's companion was less like holding a tigersnake, and more like being caught between the dragon and the inferno. It had honestly not occurred to her until Azula had issued her challenge that obeying her parents, obeying Azula, and obeying the Firelord might be conflicting guidelines.
On the other hand, while there was a slim chance she'd be caught playing around in off-limits areas of the Palace, there was no chance of Azula not sticking around to see if she went along with this, and though she couldn't yet be sure what the princess would do if she demurred, Mai got the impression it wouldn't be to just shrug it off.
Ty Lee was apparently quite nimble on her feet; in seconds she had dashed down the hall, tapped the edge of the great gilted doors, and was sprinting back. Gasping, she darted back behind the pillar. Mai noted with some disapproval that she was trembling.
"What about you, Mai?" Azula said, turning those burnt-amber eyes on her like a hawk eyeing its intended prey.
"Ok," Mai murmured, slipping her hands into her opposite sleeves.
Instead of running straight down the vaulted corridor as Ty Lee had, Mai walked calmly down the shadowy area behind the columns that lined it. Her mother disapproved of disruptive sounds, so she was in the habit of stepping softly, the suede soles of her boots barely making a sound against the marble floor. Doing her best to appear serene and probably, Mai thought, succeeding, she paused behind the last column and glanced back down the hall to make sure the way was clear. Azula and Ty Lee's heads peeked out at her, respectively predatory and anxious.
Straightening her back and brushing her hair over her shoulder, Mai stepped out into the lights of the main corridor, made the last eleven steps to the Firelord's door, and put her hand flat against it.
The beaten-gold embossment was unexpectedly hot under her cold fingers. Surprised, Mai lingered for an instant, and because she lingered she heard the footsteps approaching from the other side.
Ice-needled adrenaline shot through her veins so quickly she felt as though she had been petrified on the spot. Just barely she managed to flatten herself against the wall before the door opened, nearly smashing her.
Lord Ozai and Lady Ursa emerged, the door closing ponderously behind them and leaving Mai exposed, wide-eyed and frozen. Their backs were to her as they swept down the hall. Miraculously, they hadn't noticed her.
"—for weeks," Lord Ozai was muttering under his breath. "How much longer must this siege go before Father realizes Iroh is simply not fit to carry on a war?"
"Ozai, be gracious. Your brother is making great advances. Ba Sing Se is no simple nut to crack," Ursa said placatingly, with a small laugh.
As soon as they turned at the end of the hall, they would see her, Mai realized. This was so ridiculous and unbecoming. Father was never going to let her hear the end of how much shame she had brought on them, assuming Lord Ozai didn't toast her on the spot for her impunity.
Perhaps she could get behind the column and hide before they got to the end of the chamber, but if she moved too quickly they'd hear the rustle of her gown and catch her anyway. Silently, she took a sliding step sideways. Ten more to go, and they were almost there. She wasn't going to make it.
And suddenly there was a patter of running footsteps, a surprised "Oh!", and Azula's parents halted.
Ty Lee had run right out into the middle of the hall, distracting their attention.
"What is this?" Ozai demanded, but Ursa laid a slender hand on his arm.
"It's just one of Azula's new companions, husband," she said, laughing lightly.
"Ty Lee, daughter of Lord Eizan and Lady Bei Ling," Ty Lee squeaked, bowing so low it she looked like she might bonk her head on the floor. "Apologies—so sorry—I was just—we were playing Hide and Seek, and I got lost…."
She certainly looked lost, with her huge wide eyes and real fear, and not remotely as though she were lying through her teeth. As she was slipping unnoticed behind the pillar, Mai made a mental note that this Ty Lee was not quite as silly and air-headed as she let on.
"This is not a place for playing games," Lord Ozai said harshly.
"No indeed. It's a big place, with many areas that are off-limits. I can understand how you would get lost your first time here," Ursa intervened smoothly, somehow inserting herself between the angry lord and the terrified girl without seeming to actually move. "Why don't I take you back to the courtyard, Ty Lee, and you can continue your game from there."
"Thank you, Lady Ursa…sorry…."
"Well, that was interesting," Azula commented when Mai rejoined her.
"You didn't tell her to do that?" Mai asked, a hint of surprise creeping into her tone against her will. She mentally chalked up 'stupidly brave' under her mental tally of the other girl.
"Of course not. That was a close one, wasn't it?" Azula smirked. "Well, this is more fun than I thought it would be. I suppose we had better go back to the courtyard and collect Ty Lee again."
"Oh, you may call me Azula. No need to be formal here, we're going to be friends, aren't we?" the princess said as she led the way and Mai followed dutifully after.
After an afternoon of tolerating Ty Lee's prancing about and carefully dodging and weaving Azula's pointed barbs and 'tests', Mai's nerves were at their fraying point. She would have to work harder to be less easily affected, Mai thought, because she would be going back every second, third, and fifthday.
"Tell me how it went, dear. Did you get along with the Princess? Do you think you made a good impression?" her mother asked, back in the palanquin headed home.
She thought about Ty Lee's sunny smile, given only after a quick glance to make sure Azula wasn't looking, when Mai quietly murmured her thanks. She thought about the princess, and thought that no one 'got along' with her, they cooperated with her or they didn't. She thought about the feeling of hot gold under her hand and about the revelation that orders could contradict each other, and sometimes all options were breaking one rule or another. Life was suddenly not simple, because even blind obedience was suddenly not so simple.
"Yes, Mother. I think I did."