Some important notes on this fic:
There's some slight AU to this fic. It is set a few years just before Zuko was banished, but obviously this didn't happen in canon: Otherwise Ty Lee would have remembered visiting this place before. Additionally, Zuko and Mai share a bond perhaps stronger than the story imagined it. So, just a little AU tweaking, but otherwise nothing particularly strange.
This fic was inspired by the livejournal community's CAPSLOCK_ATLA chat. How? Because we screamed a lot. :D
And lastly, I don't own Avatar, or any of these characters. Oh, and no ship-war comments please, let's be pleasant!
PLEASE comment, I feed off them. I might continue this if there's enough desire.
There was a wise man that once said; Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.
If the royal family of the Fire Nation had just listened to this sage advice, perhaps their lives would turned out different.
As it was, however, they did not. And as the group noisily filed into the palanquin one by one on that early summer morning, they were about to learn just how easily lives can be changed by a simple choice such as putting a few too many children into a small, cramped space for an extended period of time.
"OW. QUIT IT."
"WHAT? I'M NOT TOUCHING YOU."
"MOM, AZULA'S TRYING TO SET MAI'S HAIRBUN ON FIRE."
"I AM NOT!"
"GET YOUR LEGS OFF ME, TY LEE!"
"I'M SORRY! IT'S NOT MY FAULT THERE WASN'T ENOUGH ROOM FOR ME TO SIT NORMALLY!"
"EWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW GROSS, ZUZU!"
"SHUT UP AZULA!"
"BUT I SAW YOUR TONGUE IN HER MO-"
A flame burst out of the curtains covering the right side of the palanquin, setting both the curtains and the guard that was riding close by on fire. He screeched far too daintily, and patted his arm to put out the fire. Another guard worked on the curtains, as the siege within continued.
"DAAAAAAAAAAD, ZUZU JUST SET THE PALINQUIN ON FIRE. AND HE'S GETTING MAI PREGN-"
"SO HELP ME, I WILL TURN THIS PALINQUIN RIGHT AROUND IF THE LOT OF YOU DON'T KEEP QUIET BACK THERE. I WON'T HEAR ANOTHER WORD!"
There was a beat of silence, before a chorus of 'yes, dad', 'yes, Uncle', or 'yes, Firelord Ozai' was mumbled quietly. A blessed period of complete silence followed, which settled the Firelord's frazzled nerves at ease. He took his wife's hand in his, and peered out of the curtain at his vast empire.
"Told you Mai would get us in trouble," Azula whispered breathily to the back of the compartmented palanquin, where Zuko and Mai had managed to find activities well suited to silence, like holding hands and cuddling.
"Shut up Azula." Zuko whispered back, through his teeth. His hands itched to set another fireball at her, but his father had dropped the curtain and glared at the two sharply, just waiting for them to speak again.
Mai looked up through thick eyelashes, her face downcast and red with embarrassment. 'Sorry', she mouthed up at him, and he shook his head.
"Don't listen to her." He whispered in her ear. "Azula always lies."
Zuko was right, of course, although he didn't often listen to his own advice. Azula was capable of more than just deceit, however, as she stealthily reached her hand around Mai's shoulder, in a way that Zuko couldn't see, and touched a finger to one of her friend's hair buns. The spark lit, and smoke spiraled upward from her hair.
"AZULA!" Zuko screamed, cupping Mai's hairbun quickly and setting the fire out. It was just the outburst that Ozai was waiting for, and it was enough to make him tap on the palanquin, stopping the wearied men who carried it.
"THAT IS IT. ZUKO, YOU'RE WALKING TO THE FERRY. GET OUT OF THE PALANQUIN."
Ozai didn't need to say anymore, his eyes widened and his hand snaked out from his robe, pointing at the exit swiftly. Zuko knew he didn't have a choice. With one last glare at his smiling sister, he stumbled out of the palanquin, and began treading the rocky path alone.
Ozai tapped the wall twice, and the men lifted the palanquin up once more, and began to jog away. Inside, there was a tender and awkward calm, as Azula picked Ty Lee up off her lap and helped her sit in the spot formerly taken by her brother.
"There, now. Isn't that better?" Azula murmured to her friend, who gave her a nervous giggle. But when Azula turned to look away, Ty Lee's smile faded, and she gave Mai a glance. Mai was slumped in her seat, with her bangs covering her eyes to hide her emotion. But Ty Lee knew. She could see that black, angered aura around her. She brought a lock of hair to her lips and chewed on it nervously.
He had been banished from the palanquin, forced to walk this path alone. It was so humiliating. He was pretty sure there were voices, in the trees, laughing at him. Once or twice he caught sight of movement, and paused. Was he under attack? He spread his feet apart and stood in a clumsy fighting stance, waiting for someone to come out and fight him.
Luckily, the kids in the trees that he couldn't see weren't looking to fight. Not today.
After what seemed like forever, he dropped his fists and started walking once more. It was at least ten minutes later before he saw something more than the dirt brown of the path before him, and he strained his eyes to focus on the little dot of black. Was it the palanquin? Had father changed his mind, and forgiven him? Was his family waiting for him at the end of this long road, with open arms?
His steps had quickened with a new hope, which was quickly dashed, and just as quickly replaced by a different feeling, when he realized what it was waiting for him there. It was no palanquin, and of course his father had not changed his mind. It was Mai, standing silent and still as stone, waiting to walk with him down to the ferry.
He reached the girl, and her head immediately dipped down to hide her eyes from him. Zuko grinned, and bent his head down to look at her.
"They let you out?" He murmured, still grinning that awkward, pre-teen grin of goofy abandon.
"No," She whispered. "I jumped."
Zuko's grin faltered, and he tilted his head left, then right; checking for injury. She looked as unscathed and untouched as ever, not a hair out of place, not a speck of dust on her body.
"Spirits, Mai. You're something special."
A tinge of red colored her cheeks, and she finally looked up at him, giving him a tiny, but proud, smirk.
"Let's go." She murmured, feigning boredom. "I don't want to miss the ferry."
And as they walked the long road down to the ferry, where their family and friends waited for them both patiently and impatiently, Zuko made sure to hold Mai's hand the whole way down.
"Look, there's the boy now. I told you he'd be fine. Walking is good for him, builds character. He'll have to be strong, strong enough to take my place one day. Is that Mai with him? When did she even get out of the palanquin?"
Ozai seemed to be chattering to no one in particular, partially because he was worried that his wife was still holding a grudge for what he'd done, and partially because she hadn't said a word to him the entire trip, so he therefore made it a point to act as though he was speaking to the group as a whole, as though he didn't care.
Ursa gave her husband one last withering look, and with a quiet voice, said the first words to her husband that she'd uttered all day.
"I hate you."
Ozai frowned, but forced himself to look unperturbed.
"Come on kids, let's get on the ferry." Ursa had begun loading them all down the ramp and into the ferry that would take them to Ember Island, waiting just long enough to give her son a hug as he strode in with Mai. She wouldn't make a fuss about the situation, in the end, because he was smiling, and that was all that mattered.
"I see you lived through your ordeal unscathed, Zuzu." Azula murmured as her brother passed her by. His eyes were still on Mai, with a goofy smile that spoke volumes of how little his sister could bother him while he had her around. And yet, somehow, he managed to accidentally stretch his arm out and push his sister right over the ferry. Though he didn't get to see the spectacular fall, the splash was loud enough to make him grin ear to ear.