Evening arrived more swiftly than she had anticipated, pushing the sun further down the world's slippery rim in preparation for the coming darkness. Already the brilliant orange sunset had begun to give way to deep indigo, signaling the night's approach. Despite the temporary descent of their sacred symbol, the people would rest easy tonight in the sudden coolness, knowing the warmth and power would return the next morning. The sun would always rise again.
Just like someone else she knew.
She found him in the royal oasis, feeding turtle ducks. Despite the troubled scowl on his face, she knew that this one activity seemed to keep him more content than he'd been since they arrived back home. She'd have to ask him why one of these days.
"I'm bored," she deadpanned to announce her presence, taking a seat next to him. He grunted to acknowledge her, remaining silent for the moment.
"So entertain me, duh," she clarified.
He appeared to think about that for a moment. "You could help me feed turtle ducks."
"I guess so," she replied, giving a small smile. "Why do you find it so interesting?"
Prince Zuko didn't answer for a long time. "I used to feed the turtle ducks with my mother," he finally revealed.
And immediately, she understood. Mai had seen very little of the erstwhile Princess Ursa growing up, and she had not been spoken of in the palace city since her disappearance shortly following Fire Lord Azulon's demise. She knew enough to understand that Zuko had found a better audience with her than he had with the rest of his family, save his uncle. Her leaving had a profound effect on the young prince.
Without saying another word, she grabbed one of the loaves of bread and broke it, scattering crumbs over the surface of the pond. Several turtle duck chicks paddled over and plucked them from the water, quacking happily. It almost caused her to smile.
"What are you doing out here, anyway?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "I guess it's the only place that still feels like home."
"A lot changed after you left," she agreed.
"No kidding." He tossed a few more crumbs into the water, then lowered his head and closed his eyes. "My father talked to me."
"Really?" she intoned, trying to sound supportive even though she had long since forgotten how. "What did he say?"
"He said that I've redeemed myself," he muttered despondently, when most people would have been ecstatic. "That he's proud of me."
"That's great," she replied, smiling and placing a hand on his shoulder. She removed it when he frowned. "I think?"
"No, you're right," he admitted, frowning deeper as his head dipped further still. "It's great news. I have my honor back. I should be the happiest guy in the world." He glared at the water.
Her hand returned to his shoulder. "What's wrong?"
His head rose just a little bit, but he still refused to look at her. "He said Azula told him I killed the Avatar. But I didn't. She did." He closed his eyes. "My father only accepted me back because of a lie."
Her heart dropped just a little bit at the revelation and a look of concern took over her face. "Hey. Look at me," she commanded. He acquiesced a moment later, and she continued. "You're back home now. Your father said he's proud of you. Does it really matter why?"
Zuko's face was overtaken by that mask of turmoil he had sported ever since they left Ba Sing Se. He turned to stare at the water again. "It shouldn't. I don't know why I feel this way."
"Are you worried you'll get banished again?"
"Worse," he replied, shaking his head. "I'm afraid he won't even bother banishing me this time."
"You mean he'll lock you up like your uncle?"
The look he sent her way told her he expected far worse than that.
"Well if it makes any difference, I don't think you're as naïve as you were when your father first banished you," she told him, trying to be encouraging. "You know when to keep your mouth shut. And if he does find out, you're good enough at firebending now that you could at least defend yourself."
He nodded reluctantly, barely agreeing with her. "I still don't get why Azula would lie about which of us killed the Avatar."
"Maybe you should ask her," she suggested.
A scowl came over his features. "I think I will." With that, he stood up and walked away without so much as a goodbye.
She watched him leave, resisting the urge to go with him. This was something he needed to face on his own.
Sighing, she turned her gaze to the pond, staring into a strange world of drowning stars and uneaten breadcrumbs. The water rippled and swirled, reflecting images like glass, but without so much clarity. She tried hard to recognize the face staring back at her.
And she remembered.
"You two are such... ugh!"
Fuming like a teapot on the verge of a steaming eruption, Mai dug her nails into her palm as her fists shook by her side. It was far from the first time she had made such a declaration, but she had never meant it quite as strongly as she did right now.
"I'm just saying," Azula replied nonchalantly as she examined her nails, "I see you staring at him every chance you get. Almost like you're in love with him or something."
"Yeah, you totally stare at him!" Ty Lee chimed in, not really adding anything but just wanting to agree with Azula.
"That doesn't prove anything," she insisted, crossing her arms and gazing intently at a nearby tree. "Ty Lee stares at you all the time."
The acrobat in question turned as pink as her outfit. "Mai!"
Azula shrugged. "You say that as if I hadn't already noticed. Besides, the fact that you're trying to change the subject only proves what I'm saying."
"I am NOT in love with Zuko!" she declared loudly enough for passing servants to briefly turn their heads in curiosity. A quick glare from the princess encouraged them to keep moving.
"If you say so," she replied with a mock sigh.
"What's it to you, anyway?"
"I'm just trying to look out for you two," the princess answered a little too sweetly. "Zuzu really hasn't been the same since Mom left." She rolled her eyes. "Three years and he still hasn't gotten over it."
"I don't think that's something you can ever get over," Mai opined.
"Why not? I did."
'More like you never cared for her in the first place,' she decided not to say out loud, not for fear that Azula would take umbrage, but that she would actually agree with her on that point. It had never been any secret that she preferred her father, who seemed to revel in the way she was driven to excel at activities girls her age were not usually taught. That she sought to emulate him in every possible aspect of her life was probably why she had earned so much of his favor while her brother almost never received treatment worthy of the first born.
Azula took her silence as a signal to continue. "You don't know him as well as you think you do," she asserted. "He probably doesn't even notice you like him."
"That's because I don't," she insisted. "Not the way you seem to think I do."
"Please," the princess scoffed. "I know people. You've liked him that way for as long as you've known him."
Mai glared then, trying to figure out what Azula was driving at. Was she trying to bring them together or drive them apart? There was always a hidden motive behind every word she spoke, and she had gotten better at concealing it over the years. She could simply be trying to get a rise out of her, but she had achieved that already and had not stopped there. In fact, her supposed crush on Zuko was a favorite topic of Azula's, though the conversations had never gone like this before.
What was she after?
"There's a reason he hasn't gotten close to anybody since Mom left, you know," Azula said then, as if to answer her question. "He's afraid they'll leave him too. The only person he's really close to is Uncle."
So that was it, then. It was the same reason that she had arranged the incident with the burning apple, wherein Mai and Zuko took a tumble into the fountain—the last time she had uttered the remark that started this whole line of conversation. Azula saw the potential for a positive relationship in Zuko's life and she did everything in her power to ridicule it, to turn it into the subject of scorn and shame so that neither of them would feel inclined to pursue it.
Mai frowned at the realization, but did not speak her thoughts out loud. Though she and Ty Lee were both nominally friends with Azula, she did not pretend not to notice the princess' darker side. The reason she had stayed in her company this long was because Azula desired to be around her, and she always got what she desired. As a nobleman's daughter, it also meant that they were more or less in the same social circle by default. To not associate with her would basically mean having no friends at all, which was not an alternative she was willing to entertain.
Besides, Azula could be rather interesting to spend time with outside of situations like this, when all the darker thoughts started creeping in at the edges of her mind. She did not always think so critically of the princess, but she did not live in delusion like Ty Lee, either.
"I still don't see how it's any of your business," she muttered.
"He's my brother," the princess pointed out. "And you're my friend. Aren't you, Mai?"
Mai said nothing, but nodded.
"Good," she replied. "Now come along, Ty Lee. I think Mai needs some time alone."
She did not watch them as they left.
Her determination to stay in the oasis crumbled within minutes as Mai realized how bored she was. Sighing, she began to walk in the direction she'd last seen Azula and Ty Lee depart.
The halls of the palace were gigantic, and aside from handful of servants, they were empty. Even though it had seemed larger when she was younger, the palace had felt more like the royal family's home back then. The loss of Lu Ten and Princess Ursa had robbed the place of much of its warmth, while grief and sorrow had been more than happy to take its place like cold air rushing to replace the rising heat. This felt less like a summer breeze and more like the chill that blew through caverns at night.
She heard Azula's voice around the corner as she approached, and hesitated before turning it. She pressed herself against the wall and listened to the conversation the princess was having.
"...to grow up sometime," Azula was finishing. "I've already been to ten of Dad's war meetings."
"You're lying," another voice—Zuko's, she realized—accused. "I would have heard about it if you had."
"Are you sure about that? You spend so much time with Uncle it's amazing you're aware of anything that goes on here. I even helped plan a few battles."
Zuko was right, of course: the princess was lying, as was her wont. She had tried gaining entry to the war room many times, but General Iroh always seemed to be there to warn her that the topics discussed within were too troubling for her young mind to handle. Of course, it was obvious to everybody that it was the other way around and he did not want to risk Azula's ideas—which she often discussed at length—being implemented on the battlefield, but the old man was too polite to say that.
"I don't believe you."
Azula gave a big, showy sigh. "Fine. Even if you don't think I'm telling the truth, that's no reason you shouldn't try. After all, if you're going to rule this nation someday, shouldn't you start learning as much as you can?"
Mai did not need to see Zuko's reaction to know that his sister had gotten to him. She could sense Azula's plan already: the prince got along better with Iroh, which meant he had a greater chance of getting into the war room and learning what it was their father discussed with his generals.
That girl was so devious it was downright scary sometimes.
"I guess it's worth a shot," Zuko replied begrudgingly. She heard his footsteps as he departed.
Mai frowned. There was no way this could end well.
'I hate being right,' she lamented as she watched the young Prince Zuko crouched on one end of the court preparing for Agni Kai. She had no idea what he had said to provoke this, but she could not help feeling that he was in way over his head.
It had started a few minutes earlier when Ty Lee had grabbed her hand and begun dragging her halfway down the corridor before she even registered what was going on. When she stopped and asked, the only answer the acrobat gave her was that Zuko had disrespected one of his father's generals and Azula had invited both of them to witness the Agni Kai.
She saw the princess a few rows down next to General Iroh and Captain Zhao, grinning like this was a sporting event. Her mind returned to the conversation she'd overheard earlier, and wondered briefly if Azula had planned this.
No, she decided after a moment. She had not planned this specifically, because there was no accounting for Zuko's particular brand of blunt-headed stupidity. That did not seem to stop the princess from enjoying every minute, however.
She could not clearly see the figure on the other end of the courtyard, but saw enough to realize that Zuko's opponent clearly outmatched him. Firebending wasn't necessarily about physical size or even age, as Azula proved, but the young prince's opponent was clearly a master while he had not even progressed past the basics. He might be able to survive if he begged for mercy.
The gong sounded and the two rose, shedding the ceremonial vests. As the other man turned around, Mai got a closer look at who it was, and knew immediately how this was going to end.
It was Fire Lord Ozai.
She cursed herself for not putting the pieces together sooner. Zuko had disrespected one of the generals, but by doing so in the Fire Lord's war room, he had disrespected him. Now he would have to duel his own father.
Zuko had apparently not known either, since she could see the shock on his face even from here. He fell on his knees and started pleading with his father, too quietly for her to hear from her current seat. She caught a few words here and there from Ozai, words like "respect" and "suffering." She knew how they were likely to be related as she watched the Fire Lord draw back his fist.
She turned. She stood. She ran. The last thing she heard as she ran out of the arena was the sound of Zuko screaming in agony.
Mai continued to run, ignoring everything in her path. Before long, she reached the royal oasis.
Leaning against a nearby tree, Mai lost control and began to weep.
The next time she saw Zuko, he had a bandage over his face.
She stood a few rows behind him in a procession to see the young prince off, but she could not help feeling that the situation was closer to running him out of town on a rail. Which, considering he was being banished, wasn't too far from the truth.
They stopped at the gates that led to the port, the palace city looming behind them. Zuko stood before the ramp of a small ship, the vessel of his exile. It was nothing like the current warships, having been produced near the beginning of the war, but it still ran and never gave up, just like the prince. Standing next to him was his uncle, who had volunteered to go with the boy in a manner which brooked no disagreement, not even from the Fire Lord.
Not that Ozai particularly wanted his brother around.
"Prince Zuko," the Fire Lord began as everyone around him remained dead silent. "You are hereby banished from the Fire Nation. You may not enter our lands or our waters ever again. The only way to return home with your honor is with the Avatar as your prisoner."
"Happy hunting," added Azula.
Mai frowned. He might as well have ended after saying that Zuko could never come back. The Avatar had not been seen in over one hundred years. The chances of finding him were next to nothing. This was likely the last time she would ever see him.
"Control yourself, Mai," her mother hissed next to her. "This isn't a funeral."
It was not until she had admonished her for it that Mai realized she was crying. She sniffed and wiped her eyes dry. As she watched the prince board the ship with his uncle, she resolved never to shed tears over him again.
She had none left anyway.
The curtain to the prince's bedchamber parted silently, allowing a single spear of light to penetrate the darkened room, followed swiftly by a young woman wearing only a robe. It had been a simple matter to persuade the guards to let her through the doors, citing business with the princess as her reason for being in the palace so late at night. The mere mention of Azula's name was enough to convince them to let her through, no questions asked.
One good thing about being so close to the royal family, she supposed.
She traveled quietly across the ornate rug, over to the bed that was so much larger than the one Zuko had slept in the last time he occupied the palace. She looked over his sleeping form and sighed as she watched him squirm under the sheets that were softer than he had grown accustomed to on his journey around the world. Most people appeared peaceful while they slept, but with Zuko there was always turmoil.
No matter how well his life was supposed to be going.
She reached for him in the dark, hoping to quiet the storm that raged within him. She was halfway there when a hand snatched her wrist before she even saw his eyes open. In an instant, Prince Zuko had rocketed into a seated position and had his fist drawn back, ready to immolate the intruder.
"It's just me," she deadpanned, sighing again.
"Mai," he breathed, calming considerably before squinting at her in suspicion. "What are you doing here?"
She frowned. "I wanted to find out what Azula told you."
"And you couldn't have waited until morning?"
She was surprised to see him crack a slight smile. "Me either," he admitted.
"So what did she say?"
The smile dropped. "I can never understand what she says," he replied. "But I think she gave me the credit for killing the Avatar so if he did end up surviving, I'd take the fall for it instead of her."
Mai rolled her eyes at herself for not thinking of that earlier. "That sounds like her," she agreed. "But he didn't survive, right?"
He glanced to his left, away from her. "Right," he told her. "There's no way he survived that. Nobody could."
She offered a small smile of her own. "Then you have nothing to worry about."
"That's what Azula said," he revealed, frowning some more. "Only it sounded a lot more sinister coming from her."
"Oh, quit being so paranoid," she encouraged. "Forget about Azula and your father for one night. You really need to lighten up."
He smirked. "Says the girl who sighs every two minutes."
She glared, but couldn't quite sustain her anger at him when she realized he had a point. "Look," she told him. "I know you're feeling confused now that you're back home and nothing's going the way you expected. A lot of things changed after you left."
"You said that earlier," he observed.
She ignored the remark. "They weren't all bad changes," she insisted as she undid the sash on her robe and shrugged her shoulders, letting it hit the floor. "Let me show you one thing..." she continued, sidling closer, "...that's changed for the better."
Those were the last words she said to him before she leaned over and cupped his chin, claiming his lips as her own.