Mai's downfall began with a blush that warmed her to her toes.
As bad as it was when Azula noticed Mai blushing, this little slip of expression brought on a whole new kind of situational terror. This time, Mai's mother noticed the rosy cheeks. Mother had taken Mai out to the Market Square to do a little shopping, but what wound up catching Mai's eye was not any of the trinkets or jewelry on display, but a certain kind-hearted Fire Prince tagging along in the wake of his own mom, Princess Ursa. Mother looked down at Mai, and said, "What's wrong, child? Are you feverish? The last time I saw that much color in your face you upended your stomach all over the carpet."
Mai, of course, said nothing, but she couldn't keep her eyes from briefly glancing back over to Zuko. Mother, sadly, did not miss the slip, and was able to discern the object of Mai's attentions like a hawk spotting prey and making bloody dinner plans. "Ah! I understand. Prince Zuko, eh?" Mai suppressed a wince, and mentally steeled herself for a berating and maybe even a smack. Mother surprised Mai, however, by smiling broadly and whispering, "Well done, child. Now, watch closely and do exactly as I say. If you're a good girl, we can elevate our family beyond your father's wildest dreams, and when you're older, you'll get laid by a prince every night of your life!"
Mai blinked. "What's 'laid' mean?"
"Hush, child. Time for me to do my thing." Mother fluffed her hair, grabbed Mai's hand, and dragged her daughter over towards Zuko and Princess Ursa, but stopped short of actually approaching them. Instead, Mother turned and acted like she was suddenly interested in a display of jeweled necklaces from the Outer Islands, and just as Mai was about to ask what was going on and why necklaces were so important, Mother reached out and shoved Mai right off her feet.
Mai barely had time to anticipate the crash on the hard stone ground when she realized that something had arrested her fall.
Something with warm hands.
Warm hands on her waist.
Mai looked up into Zuko's concerned eyes. The Prince stared back and breathed on her with a scent like fire flakes. "Are you okay? I think you tripped."
Mai answered with a blush that made her feel like she was on fire. Again.
"Oh, Mai! Thank goodness Prince Zuko just so happened to be there to catch you!" Mother immediately turned to Princess Ursa and said, "She's my only child, and I couldn't stand the thought of her in pain. We owe your handsome, gentle, sure-to-grow-up-to-be-as-sexy-as-his-father son so much!"
"Um, yes," Princess Ursa managed. "Zuko and I are glad he could help. Is Mai all right?"
Everyone looked to Mai. Mai looked at Zuko, his arms still wrapped around her, and couldn't think of anything to do but somehow blush even harder.
Zuko's cheeks reddened a bit in response. "Can you stand? My arms are getting tired."
Mai blushed some more and suddenly craved fire flakes.
Finally, Zuko lifted and positioned her back on her feet, made sure she wasn't going to topple over, and then let go of her. Mai felt like an idiot, but still couldn't think of anything to say.
Mother, of course, was on top of the situation. "Well, this was a fortuitous meeting. Say hello, Mai."
"Close enough." Mother leaned towards Princess Ursa and loudly whispered, "It seems that my little Mai is very appreciative of Prince Zuko's attention."
Princess Ursa smiled. "Yes, I've noticed that she can be especially quiet when Azula invites her brother to play with the girls."
"Last time, Azula set Mai's skirt on fire," Zuko threw in helpfully. Mai, in turn, lowered her eyes. She still didn't like thinking about that.
Mother just tittered. "Oh, Princess Azula is such a loveable scamp. Mai enjoys having her as a friend. And she is very grateful for the Princess' good will, of course." Princess Ursa just nodded, so Mother continued, "It's such a special relationship Mai has with your family. Tell me, does Prince Zuko have a marriage contract yet?"
Princess Ursa blinked. "Um... what?"
"A marriage contract. Is he promised? I know the dears are a bit young for such a thing, yet, but there's no harm in securing their futures, especially when they're already so close to each other."
Princess Ursa looked down at Mai, and Mai could only stare back. "Marriage. To Mai. Marriage."
"It's better to make things official before their wild teenage years, after all, and not to gossip but if that Ty Lee girl is anything like her sisters, you'll want your son spoken for already." Mother gave Princess Ursa a superior, controlling look that Mai knew very well. Mai had heard that Zuko and Azula's mom was an Outsider who didn't grow up in Caldera City, and Azula had even said once that she had been born as a peasant of all things (or so Azula claimed to have been told by her father, but Mai thought he had mean eyes and so didn't like him). Mother's family, on the other hand, had been nobles since forever. As always, Mother was in control of the situation.
Princess Ursa put on a smile that Mai could see didn't reach her eyes. "I suppose it's an idea worth considering. But what do the children think?" She looked down at Zuko, and the Prince blushed and shrugged.
Then Princess Ursa looked to Mai. "And what about you? Do you think you'd like to marry Zuko?"
Mai stood there in silence. She had no idea how to respond to that. The very idea of Zuko made her insides twist like she had eaten too many fire flakes and then tried to treat the ailment with a glass of milk, and trying to imagine her and him as a mommy and daddy living together just shut Mai's brain down completely.
Thankfully, Mother chose that moment to poke Mai in the back. "Child, say that you'd like to marry Prince Zuko."
"That I'd like to marry Prince Zuko?"
Time passed. The hours wasted until the day was over.
The ways of the Capital were still strange to Ursa, even after all these years. She still wasn't used to having servants around, all the houses were frankly ridiculously big, and Ember Island was a cesspit of immorality for what it allowed its Players to do to 'Love Amongst the Dragons.' Not to mention the way of life practiced by these nobles. The concept that Zuko, just nine years old, could be formally promised for marriage was just too much for her to reconcile. She, at least, was an adult when Fire Lord Azulon and his Prince Ozai arrived to make her a proposal she literally couldn't refuse. But children? And yet here the family was meeting in the Fire Lord's parlor over tea like this was some kind of civilized matter. Sipping tea while deciding which unpleasant spawn of a noble Zuko would someday be making babies with.
At least the tea was good.
"Mai," Iroh grunted across the table from Ursa, and then took a sip of the delightful tea he had brewed. "Mai. Is that the giggly pink one who likes magic tricks or the gloomy quiet one with the odango hair?"
Now, General Iroh was an odd person, and Ursa knew she wasn't alone in that opinion. As the Fire Lord's High Warlord, he was the one responsible for leading the war effort in the Earth Kingdom. He was also, not to be too picky, related to Azulon and Ozai. Yet, Ursa liked him. His position could have corrupted him, made him hard, made him bloodthirsty, and yet he remained a jovial personality, committed to spreading the Fire Nation's civilization to the lesser nations with respect, who treated Ursa kindly and like an actual person with a will of her own.
Too bad she couldn't have been forced into a marriage against her will for worry of her family's safety with him, even as old as he was.
At Ursa's side, Ozai continued to twist his own teacup in place, still not having tasted from it. "How am I supposed to know which is which? Azula commands her own minions."
Minions? Yes, of course he would think of Azula's friends that way. "She's the gloomy quiet one," Ursa said. "She talks well enough when the three girls are playing together, but I've never seen her smile, even when she doesn't know I'm watching."
Iroh gave a deep frown. "Well, that doesn't sound very healthy. Has anyone tried tickling her?"
"I... don't know." Mai didn't seem dangerous, but then, Azula was a peril to approach with aggressive intent. Best not to make assumptions in the Capital and approach strange little girls with plans to tickle.
Azulon cleared his throat and leaned forward at his position at the head of the table. "The main consideration is the girl's family, and that, at least, is acceptable. The father's clan has only risen to prominence within the last generation, but he himself has served well in War Minister Qin's department. He's part of a task force developing the tools of conquest for the Canyon Regions, and they're already building prototypes for a deployable bridging device. It's rather clever, actually. I've requested a miniature prototype for display in my office. The mother's family is, of course, well known in Caldera City, old and respectable."
"Old, at least," Ozai snickered. "Their respectability ran out with their money."
Iroh shook his head. "There is little anyone in a clan can do when the patriarch has lost his good sense. Just because he wasted his money in games of Destiny and professional escorts with the martial arts prowess to spin on a pole in so little clothing has no bearing on his daughter's respectability, nor his grand-daughter's. Probably."
Ozai twisted his teacup again. "Blood tells, brother. Perhaps you have heard that the lady in question did not have a contract with our clever engineer before their marriage?"
Ursa blinked. "So what? Technically, we didn't have a contract either." Not that she was implying anything.
"That's something else entirely," Ozai waved away. "It's a phrase meaning that a child was conceived and the mother chose not to get rid of it. Any man purporting to have Honor would then be obligated to marry, contract or no. It's a fairly well known ploy amongst women seeking to rise up in the world. This child Mai is probably bait for such a trap."
Ursa glared at her husband. "Ah, yes, we had that back home, too. We called them 'spearpoint weddings,' because the father of the bride would be expected to drag the boy before the magistrate using his old service spear, if necessary. You see, it was considered to be more the man's fault than the woman's." Ursa mentally willed her husband to stick that in his teacup and choke it down.
Iroh smiled. "Interesting. I like that. 'Spearpoint weddings.' We should start issuing spears here in the Capital. But I think we worry over nothing. From what Ursa says, the child is fond enough of Zuko. A blush cannot be faked under scrutiny, or else I was a bigger fool in my youth than I realized. Most likely, the parents are simply using the child's crush to associate themselves with the Royal Family, nothing more. Who wouldn't want to be part of our happy clan?"
Ursa held her tongue on that matter. Indeed, tea this good couldn't be found anywhere else. Surely it was worth it. And when had her thoughts gotten so sarcastic?
Azulon laid his rest his hands on the table. "I am not concerned with those who chase power. There's more than a little of that in this room already." Ozai frowned at that, and Ursa suppressed a smirk. "The family, whatever their flaws, manage to fit in and thrive in our society. That is good enough. I want to know about the dowry they're offering."
Ursa blinked. "A dowry? My family didn't offer a dowry."
Ozai rolled his eyes. "You were sought out for your bloodline. Thus, our children are your dowry. One of them even turned out not to be a complete disappointment."
Ursa nearly threw her steaming teacup at him for that, but a chuckle from Iroh distracted her. "Ah, Ozai, always so tactful. Zuko is at least good enough to have female hearts fluttering before he is even a decade old. You and I cannot claim the same thing, some stories I've spread about myself aside." He winked at Ursa, and she couldn't help but smile at the self-deprecating implications. "As for the dowry, we are rich enough, I think. This Mai need not be sold for anything more than a thoughtful gift. And, as it would happen, I finally recall where I had heard of her father before now. He is known amongst the military officers here in the Capital for owning a complete set, mint condition, of the original run of 'Lady Rei!' picture novels. I wouldn't mind having that in the royal library."
Ursa smacked her forehead. Even in Hira'a, they knew of 'Lady Rei!' comic books. People claimed to read them for the stories, but everyone knew that main attraction (so to speak) was that the heroine Rei herself spent most of every book in the nude.
Azulon and Ozai were quiet for a moment, and then the Fire Lord pounded a fist on the table. "So be it. If the family will agree to that dowry, Mai and Zuko will be contracted for marriage!"
Ozai smiled, Iroh applauded, and Ursa downed her tea in one desperate gulp.
Time passed. The hours wasted until the night was over.
"They want my 'Lady Rei!' comics?!"
Mai couldn't see much from her vantage point at the top of the stairs, but she could practically hear Mother rolling her eyes down in the parlor. "Dear, they're just smut books. Most men sell such things when they get married."
"Things were a little hectic with... you know."
Mai, sadly, did not know. There had been hints that her parents had married suddenly and under strange circumstances, but she had never been able to get the details. It was really only for curiosity's sake that she wanted to know what it was about, as she couldn't imagine her parents doing anything truly interesting or scandalous.
"I know, dear. And we've both worked hard to make sure it didn't affect your career, or the welfare of our daughter. And now, the time has come again to make sacrifices in order to ensure our perpetual success, and incidentally give Mai the chance to chain the son of Prince Hot-pants to her marriage bed."
"But... mint condition!"
"Oh, grow up."
Time passed. The days wasted until the period of official review was over.
They had a little party in the palace when the contract was signed and the comics (sorted by number and arranged carefully in long wooden boxes with sheets of papyrus separating each issue) were handed over to the Fire Lord. In the Grand Reception Room, Ursa clutched her son while she watched the two fathers paint the characters for their names on the official document, and had to remind herself not to squeeze him too tightly. "Well, that's it, Zuko. When you're old enough, you'll marry Mai and start a family together."
"That's really weird, Mom."
"I know, dear. But Mai's a nice girl," she lied, "and you'll be friends."
Zuko considered that for a moment. "But she doesn't talk. How can I be friends with someone who doesn't talk to me?"
"She's probably just shy. She just needs to get used to you. Maybe if you played more with your sister-"
"Blegh." Zuko stuck his tongue out like he had tasted a bad dumpling. Ursa wished the two could be friendlier, but didn't want to get into that issue here. Once he calmed down, Zuko ventured, "Maybe you could help me talk to her?"
Ursa blinked. "Me?"
"Yeah. I think Mai is kind of scared of me. If you talked to her, you could help her not be scared of me anymore."
That... actually wasn't a bad plan. "That," Ursa said, "actually isn't a bad plan. Good thinking, honey. Wait here."
Ursa navigated the room, passing by invited nobles looking to stuff themselves with cheesy puffs from the Royal Fire Kitchens, guards tasked with ensuring the safety of the Royal Fire Family, and servants looking to put out any metaphorical Royal Fire fires. Ursa found Mai exactly where she had first spotted the child: standing against a wall near the door and trying to be invisible despite her black dress and the red wall behind her. Smiling in a friendly manner, Ursa approached slowly and said, "Well, I suppose you're my daughter-in-law to be, now."
Mai turned smoothly and gave a short bow. "Yes, Princess."
"Are you happy?"
"Did your mother tell you to say 'yes' to all my questions?"
"Do you hate my son?"
"Y- no fair."
Ursa chuckled. "Sorry, easy target."
Mai's lips twitched into what might have been a smile. "Well, I guess I can relate to that." It was the single longest statement that the girl had ever spoken to Ursa.
"Oh, you like targets?"
Mai's lips twitched again. "I dabble."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I have some dollies." Ah, so Mai was a nice girl! Thank the dragons! "When you lie them down, their eyes close like they're sleeping." Aw, how cute, Mai was a mothering type. Ursa's smile grew. "So," Mai continued, "I stand them up on the far side of my room, and then I throw my knives at them. I have lots of knives, and I like throwing them. When the knives hit the dolls, they fall over and their eyes close and it's like they die!"
Mai looked up with wide eyes, awaiting approval. Ursa, on the other hand, was staring with slack-jawed horror. First Fire, she had engaged her darling boy to a knife-wielding psychopath.
"That's neat!" came a voice from behind Ursa. It was, of course, Zuko. He bounded right past Ursa and faced Mai with a huge grin. "Can I try it sometime?"
Mai's face was red again, and she opened her mouth as though to speak, but no sounds came out. She tried once...
...and then Ursa stepped behind Mai and gave the child a strong pat on the back. "Go ahead, dear, say what you really mean."
"I- I'd like that," Mai mumbled.
Ursa thought that things might just work out after all.
Time passed. The years wasted until childhood was over.
Mai had really thought that things would work out after all, but she was pretty sure that there was no going back from having your face lit on fire and getting banished from the Fire Nation.
Stupid Princess Ursa.
Stupid Mother shoving her at Zuko in the first place.
For once not caring about politeness or what her parents would do to her, Mai breezed into her family's house, stomped into the parlor, and said, "Well, Zuko's gone. Guess I'm free to ruin my innocence with the first unwashed peasant who comes along. Oh, and Dad can probably get his porn back." The shocked gasps of her parents were music to Mai's ears, even though she thought music was a pointless waste of time, but she didn't stick around to savor the scandal. She stomped up the stairs to her room, and resolved to spend the rest of the day testing to see which would wear out first, her knives or the woodwork on her bedroom walls.
Time passed. The hours wasted until the morning was over.
Ozai had a headache. First, his son proved to be a complete loser in the unmissed style of his wreck of a mother, necessitating a punishment that was long in coming. Then, it turned out that the Royal Fire Kitchens were out of cherries today, owing to Azula's latest food addiction. Now, the father of that worthless illegitimate Mai was petitioning the Palace for his 'Lady Rei!' comic collection back.
Well, after a day like this, Ozai was hardly in a mood to be agreeable. He summoned the Royal Fire Chief Scribe to the Throne Room and said, "I have a change I need made to my son's marriage contract."
Time passed. The hours wasted until the night was over.
Mai would have liked to spend the rest of her life in her room, but it turned out that the woodwork was actually really flimsy, so she had to go out to find new targets.
And she wanted new targets.
She was done with being the perfect daughter.
It had gotten her nothing.
It was time to show the world what she really thought of it, and all the stupid people who lived in it.
So Mai headed over to the Royal Palace, where her betrothed had once lived. She stalked silently through the halls that she knew so well but that now seemed so hollow and lifeless. No one hindered her, no one even noticed her, as she made her way to the Royal Family's living quarters in the castle's tower. She didn't stop until she reached Azula's suite, and had barely finished knocking before the Princess herself answered the door. Mai skipped the usual fawning greetings and said, "Let's go find some trouble and make it worse. Preferably hurting as many people as possible."
Azula's face briefly lit up like a bonfire, but then fell back down into an expression of weariness. "As delightful as that sounds, I have enough trouble here already. You might as well come in." She stepped aside and Mai, of course, dutifully followed her into the suite. Azula could get Mai what she wanted, so she felt no need to alienate the Princess.
The rooms were as meticulously ordered as ever, but today Mai was dismayed to see that there was a tiny bundle of chaos in the center represented by a sobbing Ty Lee. "Oh. What's her problem?"
Azula rolled her eyes. "Father didn't want to give up those stupid 'Lady Rei!' smut books, so he changed your marriage contract. You and I are now betrothed. And Ty Lee is upset that she doesn't get to marry us both as well."
Ty Lee sniffled and bawled, "I DON'T WANNA BE LEFT OUT!"
Mai's outlook on life had undergone some major changes over the last few days, but now something new and positively searing was welling up inside her. It was born of the newfound blackness in her heart, passed up through a lifetime's worth of acerbic comments that had caught in her throat whenever she remembered Mother's admonishments, and emerged from a mouth that would now smile only at the prospect of adrenaline and violence. It was a single word, a word that now expressed Mai's spirit at it most fundament level. With proper gravity, she introduced it to the world:
Mai sighed and said, "Whatever."
Time passed. The years wasted until the exile was over.
They didn't tell Zuko when he first returned to the Fire Nation, having just killed the Avatar. Mai didn't even tell him when they had their first real fight on Ember Island. She waited until after they made up to drop the bomb about the new marriage contract. It was late at night in Li and Lo's beach house, and everyone was having trouble staying awake once the adrenaline rush of the arson wore away.
"So wait," he said, "you're really going to marry Azula?"
Mai shrugged, and Azula herself rolled her eyes. "Honestly, I think Father has forgotten about it. Please don't remind him."
"Then how can Mai and I get married?"
Snuggled up against Zuko, Mai sighed. "You could always knock me up and get hauled in front of a magistrate to do the honorable thing."
The royal siblings both squawked at the exact same time, in the exact same tone.
Time passed. The years wasted until the age of conflict was over.
Mai had lost track of the number of times she and Zuko had broken up. It was always for a good reason, at least when she was the one initiating the separation, and yet they always found their ways back to each other. Certainly, they had hurt each other many times, and Mai's knives didn't have anything to do with any of it, but each time they managed to reduce the hurt a little more until they found a way to trust and live and love together on their own terms. Mai had thought that the time for convention, for worries about approval, were over, but then one night after dinner on the Fire Lord's balcony, the Fire Lord in question got on his knees and presented her with a piece of paper.
"Read it," Fire Lord Zuko said.
Mai scanned it by the light of the candles, and found a set of words that she had heard of often, but never actually seen until now.
'Under the Light of the Sun and by the auspices of the Fire Lord and his Sages, His Highness Prince Zuko and Mai of Caldera are to be bound in union...'
Zuko's name had been crossed out, with Azula's written above it in scrunched characters, but that had been crossed out as well and Zuko's worked back into the remaining gap almost illegibly. "When was this restored?"
Zuko looked up at her with a smile. "I had it done the same day I was crowned. I didn't tell you because..."
She looked down at him, and raised an eyebrow as sharp as her knives.
"Because," he continued, "I didn't want to pressure you."
"You thought I might want to marry Azula instead?"
"Well, no, I didn't- I mean, I guess I didn't think anyone would remember that, but-"
"Of course you didn't." And because her voice and words cut so easily since that day when their contract was first broken, she softened the delivery with a smile. "So, what are you saying with this? You're ready to pressure me?"
"Um, no." Zuko scowled a bit, an expression Mai knew well. Zuko had developed many kinds of scowls since the day their contract was first broken, and this one signified that he was trying to communicate something and couldn't quite make his words follow his commands. "I- I'm giving it to you. To do what you want with it. File it with the magistrate, hide it away until you decide what to do, or- or burn it. If you want."
Mai blinked, and looked down at the paper. At her name, and Zuko's. "You're giving me a choice?"
"Well, yes. I figured you needed some."
Mai was silent for a long time. All that maneuvering, all that anguish, all the drama and the sacrifices and the silly stupid.
All for nothing.
It came down to her choice.
And because of that maneuvering, and that anguish, and the drama and sacrifices and the silly stupid, Mai's response was to smile even broader, and say, "Even if I burn it, I could still change my mind and lure you into a spearpoint wedding."
And because of that same history, Zuko knew to smile back at her. "Your father has a spear? I thought they didn't allow rebels under house arrest to have weapons."
"I'll lend him a knife for the occasion."
"Or, we could just do it the easy way."
"We could. But then what secrets would we keep from our kids, just to have them come out at the most dramatic and oh so annoying moment?"
"You hate drama."
"Now you're getting it."
"So, you're going to file the contract?"
"Why are we still wasting time talking about this when you could be kissing me?"
Time passed. The hours wasted until the hot, hot kissing was over.