An Avatar the Last Airbender AU
A/N: This particular AU will have Mai encountering Zuko during 'The Chase'. That chance encounter will change many things for both the banished prince and the young noblewoman.
The track machine rumbled across the rugged Earth Kingdom terrain, kicking up thick clouds of dust. Mai sat in the second of the two compartments that the powerful machine pulled behind it. She twirled a blade in one hand and with her other tapped a staccato beat on the arm of her chair. She was bored, terribly bored, and wanted nothing more than to get out of the metal prison she along with Princess Azula of the Fire Nation and their mutual friend, Ty Lee, had been stuck in for hours.
Mai, daughter of the new Governor of Omashu, was beginning to regret her decision to accompany Azula on her tour of the Earth Kingdom. She had thought it might be interesting, at least more interesting than hanging around a conquered city full of dull, morose people with only her parents and little brother for company. Mai had been wrong. It wasn't interesting or exciting or fun and Azula's drive to capture both the Avatar and her brother, Prince Zuko, was becoming a little excessive.
"You know girls, I've been thinking." Azula waited until both Mai and Ty Lee were looking at her. It took Mai a little longer. "Is there really any point in capturing either my brother or my uncle?"
Mai wasn't exactly sure what the princess was driving at but she had a pretty good idea. Azula wasn't the forgiving type or one to neglect her responsibilities. In fact, she was an overzealous perfectionist who thought herself superior to pretty well everyone in the entire world. The only person who could inspire fear or worry in the princess was her father, Fire Lord Ozai. It was he who had sent his daughter to the Earth Kingdom to find both Zuko and Iroh, deemed traitors because of their actions during the Seige of the North. Mai didn't know all the details and didn't really want to, but Azula would go on and on about how stupid and incompetent Zuko was, how much of a failure he had always been and how badly she wanted to make him pay. They were useless after all, a waste of space, both of them and brought nothing but dishonor to the Fire Nation.
Mai tucked her blade back into its holster while keeping her pale gold eyes fixed on the princess's cold amber ones. Worry had entered into the equation now. Azula had a plan and her plans usually resulted in people getting hurt. Mai didn't want Zuko to be hurt. She hadn't seen him for three dreadfully long years, years he had spent as a banished and shamed prince, injured at the hands of his father in an Agni Kai and given only one hope of ever returning home to the Fire Nation; find the Avatar and bring him back to Ozai in chains. None of that mattered, though, not to Mai. Her relationship with Zuko, one that was just beginning to flourish before he was forced to leave, was still as important to Mai now as it had been then. Their bond had been born from mutual loneliness and a powerful connection that she was at a loss to explain. She and Zuko fit together. He, of all the people in her life, was the only one who didn't judge and expect and shut her down. He simply listened and sympathized. Their individual pains and sorrows became a sort of glue that held them together. Mai needed that. She wanted it and she craved it. Mai missed Zuko and more than anything she wanted to see him again.
"I never took you for the daydreaming type, Mai. I'm disappointed." Azula had caught her gathering wool. The princess's lips were pursed and she examined Mai closely, closely enough to make Mai feel uncomfortable. "Were you thinking about my brother?" She didn't wait for an answer. "Put him out of your mind, Mai. I've decided that he should be killed, along with my dear, old, fool of an uncle. I know that my father would approve and I would have a clear path to the throne. I really should have thought of it earlier."
Ty Lee gasped and looked openly shocked. Her wide grey eyes immediately filled with tears and she clasped her hands together as if in prayer. "You, you can't mean it, Azula. Zuko is your brother and Iroh was always so kind to us."
"I don't care, Ty Lee." Azula's voice brooked no argument. "Traitors and scum need to be put down. You should be glad that there are people like me who are willing to do the dirty work. Our nation will be greater because of it."
"Yes, Azula." Ty Lee adjusted the waistband of the little skirt she wore over her knee length pink pants. She was chewing on her lip and looked as though she wanted to cart wheel her way out of the compartment and forget about everything she had just heard.
Meanwhile, Mai had both hands tucked up into her wide sleeves. She caressed the sharp blades that sat hidden in her clothing and wondered if her knives would travel faster than the princess's powerful blue fire. Zuko couldn't die. Mai wouldn't let that happen or she would die trying to stop it. Without Zuko, what would be left to live for? Despite the turmoil of her thoughts, she managed to keep her features completely impassive. Years of being pushed into a corner and told to be quiet had some advantages.
"Mai, what do you think?"
Azula had moved to stand right in front of Mai. She peered at the fifteen year old knife thrower, a mix of curiosity and amusement on her face.
"You should do whatever you think is best, Azula," Mai answered dully.
"Yes, that's right. I should."
With fingernails that looked more like the talons of some vicious bird of prey, Azula flicked back the two loose pieces of brown hair that framed her face and gave Mai a smirk.
It was then that the track machine ground to a halt.
"What is it now?" the princess asked irritably. "Can't anything ever work properly?"
She opened the compartment's hatch, pulled the lever that lowered the gangplank and stepped down onto the rocky, dry ground. An engineer hopped out of the track machine itself and glanced fearfully down at Azula. Before stomping off to talk with the frightened man, the fourteen year old royal put a hand over her eyes, shielding them from the sun, and looked back to where they had been. She could see a figure approaching on some sort of beast, little bits of dust kicked up by the hooves. It appeared to be only a peasant, but he seemed strangely determined to rendezvous with the track machine. Yes, there was definitely something suspicious about their follower.
"Ty Lee, Mai, there's someone trailing us. I want one of you to ride back and meet him, take care of him if need be. We don't need anyone knowing our business, now do we?" Both girls popped their heads out of the compartment and glanced back at the distant figure. "Hmm, who should I pick? Whom do I trust more to do the job?" Azula put a finger to her chin and pretended to think very hard. "Mai," she decided after a moment, "saddle up the mongoose lizard and go after him. Ty Lee and I will continue to follow the Avatar and his little friends as soon as the vehicle is running again. Don't be too long now, have fun, and meet up with us when you're finished."
Mai did as she was told, reaching for the saddle and a water skin. She checked to make sure that all her blades and arrows were in place and then descended the gangplank on the eager mongoose lizard. She was glad to be out of that compartment, out in the fresh air, despite the extreme heat of it. She was relieved to be away from Azula. Mai gave Ty Lee a nod but avoided looking at the princess. With a quick jerk of the reins, the beast sprung into action and sped off, following the deep grooves made by the machine. The mysterious man did not slow down. He simply lowered his head and continued to press his mount. He and Mai were on a collision course.