MAIKO MONTH 2014
DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS: THE FIRST DAY
01 - Wanderlust
Zuko was lost, even though he knew exactly where he was.
Restlessness drove him into motion, sending him stalking the halls of the Earth Palace. He supposed that his sister would rename it soon, what with the Fire Nation having conquered Ba Sing Se and the palace itself. Azula would probably call it something that would honor their father and that would just make everyone back in the Fire Nation love her even more, if anything could add to the prestige of capturing the Earth Kingdom's last stronghold and killing the Avatar.
And that was why Zuko was lost. It had been his mission to capture the Avatar. It was supposed to be him winning honor and redemption by helping to capture Ba Sing Se. He was supposed to be the one finally getting a smile from Father. Instead, all he had were dead dreams and an uncle who wouldn't talk to him. Zuko didn't even know if it was possible for him to return to the Fire Nation, now. Azula said he could, once they were done cracking down on Ba Sing Se, but if Father disapproved, she wouldn't hesitate to deny all her promises and send him off to wander the world forever.
The thought of such a betrayal made Zuko snarl and pump a blast of fire through his fists. The flames were weak and dissipated as soon as they touched the air, but a passing servant still squawked with fear and hurried away.
Great. Now no one in the palace would want to be near him.
He was alone.
Mai almost smiled once she identified exactly what she was feeling. It was lust, for the first time in her depressingly boring fifteen years of life. Watching Zuko stomp through the hallways from the one of the palace's many shadowy corners, Mai's pulse was quickened, her attention was rock solid despite having no one to fight, her mood was not bad for a change, and she kept having strangely compelling thoughts about how nice it would be to rest in a pair of manly arms and press her skin to his (starting with hands and then progressing to faces, if she was feeling especially wild. Maybe she’d even take off her outer layers of robes and show off her arms).
Lust. Before now, Mai had been convinced that it was a myth perpetrated by teenagers who wanted a biological excuse for doing exactly what their parents told them not to do.
Now it was the call for strategy.
It briefly occurred to Mai to ignore her own desires, as she often did, in order to avoid the complications that would come along for the ride. Azula would have an opinion on Mai going after her brother, of course, as would Mai's own family, although the worst they could do was simply disapprove while Azula was prone to murder when upset. If things with Zuko didn't end quickly, she would inevitably come to the attention of all the political players back in the Capital, and that would lead to more complications. Perhaps even the Fire Lord would actually bother to learn her name and that no, she wasn't the pink one who did cartwheels. The worst case scenario was that those old gasbags Li and Lo would try to give her The Talk, which would break Mai's mind in more ways than one.
She had no reason, other than this strange urge, to pay any attention to Zuko, and every reason not to. Acting on her lust would be risking complications.
Risk was the opposite of boring.
A mind that could keep track of 800 moving objects at once and compute their direction of travel in less than a second began applying its faculties to the task of getting a boy to like her. And not just any boy- Zuko.
This would take more than just a smile and some perfume.
Fortunately, when Mai's interest was up, she could be very patient.
Her thoughts whirling with plans, Mai wandered away and left Zuko to his sexy sulking.
02 - Dare
Zuko tried to take pleasure in the morning briefings, but something about them just depressed him.
Seated behind Azula in her makeshift office, he listened as a Firebender commander droned on about the Fire Army's progress over the last day in pacifying Ba Sing Se. "...our forces surrounded the 'Earthbender Underground,' and then the Dai Li attacked and captured all resistance fighters after they tried to go- er, underground. The weapons-collection program we've implemented in the Lower Ring is proceeding at the expected pace with minimal casualties for us, mostly in the way of severed hands, and..."
Azula kept nodding with satisfaction at the news, and Zuko tried to look just as lively, but he had trouble with it, even aside from his usual lack of liveliness. He couldn't stop remembering his time living in the Lower Ring. It had been dirty and cramped, everything smelled like an ancient outhouse, and he actually had to work for money, but in retrospect, the people hadn't been all that bad. And he hadn’t been alone, at least.
Beside Zuko, Ty Lee was nodding off and making little not-quite-snoring sounds, while his sister's other goon Mai was as still and lifeless as a statue. He wished he could be as nonchalant about all this as the girls. At last, the commander finished his report, bowed, and got on his with his busy day of subjugating people. Zuko immediately stood up and had every intention of starting his own heavy schedule of wandering around and snarling at people when a shadow rose to block his way.
It was Mai.
She stared at him with dead eyes. "I’ll be taking tea this afternoon."
Zuko blinked. Was that some kind of military code? Or a political thingy, one of those metaphors? "Okay."
"You should join me."
Zuko looked around. Azula was flipping through a stack of reports, and Ty Lee was slowly toppling out of her chair while snoring happily. There didn't seem to be anything else going on, so Mai probably wasn't trying to distract him from an assassination attempt. Could Ty Lee have dared Mai to spend time with the dishonorable, monster-faced exile? Or maybe she was being serious? "Join you for tea?"
"Good. See you there." She turned around and left the office.
Zuko once again looked over at Azula, to make sure she wasn't smirking triumphantly or anything suspicious like that, but she seemed engrossed in something with the phrase 'Accidental Hair-Related Burn Report' in big characters at the top. This probably wasn’t anything she had arranged, then, otherwise she'd be actively controlling every step and making sure Mai stayed on script. So perhaps it really was a dare from Ty Lee.
Or maybe Mai actually wanted to have tea with him.
He couldn't imagine why.
At tea hour, Zuko arrived promptly in the same room where he and Uncle were supposed to serve the Jasmine Dragon's finest brew to the Earth King himself. Zuko was half-expecting to once again find Azula waiting for him with an assassination squad, but the only person in the room was Mai. She was kneeling at a low table that had already been laid out with a full service set. That was fairly elaborate for making good on a dare.
Maybe, just maybe, she wanted to have tea with him.
She looked up at the sound of his footsteps, and nodded with what Zuko hoped was approval. "I'm glad you came."
He gave his own nod, and knelt down on the opposite side of table while Mai poured him a cup. She seemed to be skipping the ceremony that went with formal tea events, which was fine with Zuko. He never understood all the reverence for hot leaf juice, anyway.
He sipped from his cup, and Mai did the same.
He looked at Mai, and she looked back with eyes that had no shine.
Zuko took another sip.
Mai sipped her own tea.
Zuko looked around. The oppressive silence prompted him to say, "This is actually a very nice room." Mai nodded as if that wasn't an utterly inane observation, so he added, "I'm glad that Azula had it cleaned up after our fight. You know, from all the fire."
Mai nodded again. "It's good to clean up fire damage. It makes everything smell like smoke." She took another sip of tea. She was very graceful about it, in a way that reminded him of his mother. Mai had very much grown into a proper lady while Zuko was away, aside from her tendency to stab people. She had also grown dark and sharp and intriguing in ways that very much did not remind Zuko of his mother, and also made him feel a little funny inside.
“Yeah,” he forced himself to say. Zuko knew it was now his responsibility to add something to keep the conversation alive, but his wits were failing him. Did that mean he had killed the conversation, or was Mai at fault for not giving him enough to work with?
At last, Mai drained the last of her cup and brought it back down to the table with finality. "Thanks for joining me. This was fun."
Fun? Fun! That meant that he won! Victim of a dare or not, Zuko had just successfully completed a conversation about something other than capturing Avatars! That was the first time in his entire life! Ha, this wasn't hard. He was so excited, he almost forgot to reply, "Oh, uh, thanks for inviting me. I had fun, too."
Then he retreated before he said something stupid.
Mai was tempted to do a victory dance, but that would have been something like work, so she just sighed triumphantly instead. That had worked out well. One social meeting down, 999 to go, and then Zuko would be acclimated enough to her company to agree to things like kissing and cuddling and hunting down rebels together.
She had no idea why other girls fretted about this dating thing. It was actually really easy.
And for once in Mai's life, it had been worth it to dare.
04 - Youth
Ty Lee walked into the suite she was sharing with Mai, and couldn't help but notice that her friend's aura was a light, bright pink.
What in the name of Sozin's glorious glutes was that about?
Ty Lee watched as Mai went about her nightly routine of sharpening every single one of her many-many knives, and had to admit that there was nothing unusual about her physical form. As usual, Mai's face was blank and her eyes were death. Every motion showed off her signature blend of apathetic grace, and she sat with a straight back that would make any mother proud. And yet Mai's aura was glowing so brightly that Ty Lee was tempted to shield her eyes.
It only took her a second to realize why this might be, and when the thought popped into her brain like fireworks at festival, Ty Lee immediately ran over to her friend and perpetrated a leaping tackle hug. "Oh Mai I'm so happy for you!"
"I was worried for so long that you were going to waste your whole youth on knives and sour expressions!"
"Who is it? You have to tell me! Is he a good kisser? Did you kiss him? Did he kiss you? When's the wedding?"
Ty Lee finally released Mai from the hug and gave her most encouraging smile. "Come on, you can tell me! This is what young women like us do when one has a new boyfriend!"
Mai resisted the power of Encouraging Smile #6 and took her time straightening her robes and picking up the knives she had dropped on the floor. Ty Lee waited patiently, because this was just too juicy to be impatient over, and was finally rewarded when Mai sighed and said, "Who said anything about a boyfriend?"
"Your aura did." Ty Lee winked. "And it's being pretty loud about it."
Mai sniffed dismissively. "I don't believe in auras, and even if I did, I doubt they would enunciate very clearly."
"It's okay, Mai." Ty Lee grabbed her friend's hands and gave them a squeeze. "You're young and inexperienced, so it's natural to be scared of talking about this type of thing. But I'm not going to judge you! I'm happy that you're happy, and I want to help you be even happier."
Mai's eyes narrowed.
Ty Lee shrugged. "Well, let's face it; you probably have a million things you need to ask me."
"Ha. I'm capable of handling things I want on my own, thank you."
"Ah, so you do have a boyfriend!"
Mai's grimace briefly turned her aura a brownish yellow. "Shut up."
"You might as well tell me." Ty Lee released Mai's hands and grinned. "Making me trick it out of you will just take longer."
"Fine." Mai gave one of her favorite sighs: Defeated #9, if Ty Lee had it right. "It's Zuko, but he's not my boyfriend yet."
Ty Lee noticed her own aura turn muddy blue, and she knew she had to take immediate action to get it back to a healthier soft shade. "Zuko? Oh, Mai, that's not going to work out at all."
Mai's eyebrows rose and her glare made Ty Lee want to inch away. "What happened to being happy for me?"
"I'm still happy for you! It's just- Well, I know you've always liked Zuko, and it's good that you're finally coming into your own as a young woman and exploring your wants and stuff, but Zuko isn't the best choice for ultimate contentment." Ty Lee saw that Mai still wasn't getting it, so she added, "He's fine for a roll in the hay, but he's not really boyfriend material."
Mai's face scrunched up. "Why would I want to roll in hay? That sounds filthy."
Ty Lee's aura swirled, mixing muddy shades with lighter ones, and she took a moment to get her thoughts all together. Azula and Mai were good at thinking about their thoughts and getting them ready to be said out loud, but Ty Lee needed to put some effort and extra thought into thinking her thoughts thoughtfully. Finally, she ventured, "Zuko's in a troubled place, Mai. His aura is completely black, and that means he's draining the energy of everyone around him. Have you seen the way he's always walking around?"
"Of course." Mai's face gave a brief twitch. "I haven't been stalking him, though."
"Well, that's the thing. It's fine to look at him, because wow, I didn't think a facial scar could make someone hotter, but I'd say yes if he wanted- but my point is that as a partner, he's not ready for a real relationship. He can't be the kind of person who can help a girl grow up into a confident young woman. He'll let his troubles make him hurt you, and you'll have to be mature enough to walk away if you don't want to get dragged down with him."
Mai blinked. "Ty, I have no idea what you're talking about." She sighed, a Courage Building #3 that Mai used all the time when talking about something serious. "Look, I'm not stupid like all those dippy girls. I've thought about this. I've thought about Zuko as a person. And I'm not fooling myself that this is grand love or anything pointless like that. I- I just like being near Zuko. I like when he acts like a goofball because he can't think of anything to say. So since I have the time, I'm doing what I like. And Zuko's just messed up because General Iroh betrayed him, and he's going home for the first time since that jer- since the Fire Lord- since- you know. Once he realizes that things will be okay and that he and I can do whatever it is young people do who like each other, he'll be fine." Mai blinked again. "Or as fine as people get in the Royal Family. So everything is going to be okay, right?"
Oh, oh, oh, oh, dear.
Ty Lee wouldn't have expected it from Mai of all people, but there it was: Mai thought she was going to change the troubled sexy guy, and that she wasn't really risking anything important by offering herself to him. Mai was being shortsighted. And dumb. And young.
Good thing Ty Lee was here.
She said, "Right," and hugged her friend, all the while thinking about how she could fix things and make sure that no one got seriously hurt.
04 - Sinner
When Zuko went to sleep that night, he was still in a good mood from having successfully been sociable with someone who had no reason to like him. He had barely gotten into a doze, though, before he was startled awake to find Ty Lee on top of him.
She was crouched with her face so close to his that he could feel her breath on his unscarred skin. (She smelled like mountain peaches.) Her eyes were also terrifyingly bright in the moonlight. Zuko started to demand an explanation, but before he could make a sound Ty Lee clamped a hand down on his mouth and somehow cut off all the airflow in his body. She moved to whisper, "Don't scream," in his ear.
Screaming was no longer part of Zuko's intentions.
He had progressed to planning a Firebending assault.
The assassination attempt he had been dreading had finally come! Azula had sent her most reliable lackey to get him out of the way so that she could hog all of Father's respect for herself. Mai must have also been part of it, maybe distracting him and putting him at ease so that he wouldn't suspect- no, they had taken tea together, and she had already brewed it when he arrived, and oh, ashes, he drank it and it was probably poisoned and now Ty Lee was here to do... something really awful and then Azula would kill Uncle and-
Zuko realized that Ty Lee was smiling at him, a smile that didn't seem to be promising death. (Zuko knew about smiles that made promises. Zhao couldn't smile any other way, and Azula had been practicing them since before she had all her teeth.) She pulled away from him slightly, and whispered, "Good. Nice and quiet. I'll let go, and light a lantern, and we can talk like friends, because we kind of are, don’t you think? Then I'll leave and you can go back to bed and have happy dreams. Doesn't that sound nice?"
Although he wasn’t so sure that he had such a thing as friends, Zuko had to admit that her plan was better than being assassinated by someone wearing a pink circus costume, so he nodded.
Ty Lee let go of his mouth and climbed off of him, and then fulfilled her promise by getting the lamp from his desk on the far side of the room and offering it for him to light. It took just one finger and an exercise of will to bend a small flame that gave life to the lamp, and Zuko was able to relax even further with the confirmation that Mai hadn't slipped him any Firebending-dampening drugs. As long as everything was okay, he decided that he was willing to play along and so whispered his first question: "Why are you in my bedroom in the middle of the night?"
Ty Lee sat down on the bed and shrugged. "I wanted to talk before we got all involved in Azula's briefing meeting, and I'm never on time for those things."
Zuko found himself pinching the bridge of his nose. "And what's so important that it couldn't wait until after the meeting?"
"Well, Mai likes you, and before you two ran into each other again I wanted to warn you to stay away from her or else. Not in a mean way, though."
Both "Mai likes you" and "or else" bounced around in Zuko's head with competing urgency, but his mind proved itself worthy and picked a response that would cover both topics: "What?!"
"Not so loud," she hissed.
Zuko had an odd urge to apologize, which he put down to the shock. "When you say 'likes,' do you mean that Mai... is in love with me?"
Ty Lee giggled. "People really like to say ‘love,’ but it’s not that common. Mai doesn’t love you, yet; I think she's just hot for you. You know, staring at your lips, eyeing your butt, thinking your hair is nice, that kind of thing. My mom always said love is the prize at the end of getting married and having five kids together."
Zuko felt his face warming. It just wasn't possible that a woman would- no, there was Jin, as misguided as she was. But Mai? He didn't know her very well, and that was partly because she was so unlike Jin. Mai was quiet. Zuko had known her since she was six and he was seven, and he didn't think they had spoken to each other more than a handful of times in all those years. Mai was the watchful type, and her growing aptitude with throwing knives was a good reflection for her frosty personality. At least Ty Lee had always spared a hello for him when they ran into each other. Mai wouldn't even meet his eyes.
But she had changed. She had talked with him over tea this afternoon. Zuko himself was a much different person than he had been as a child, before- before. Mai might have taken her aloofness and turned that into thoughtfulness, and she was just as capable of feelings as any other woman. What she saw in him, he had no idea, but-
"Wait, what did you mean with the 'or else' part?" Zuko turned to glare at Ty Lee. She curled up to lounge across the foot of his bed, seemingly indifferent to him. Of course, she would be used to Azula's glares, and Zuko felt acid rising up his throat as acknowledged another area where his sister outclassed him.
Ty Lee said, "Oh, I’m not threatening you. I mean that you and Mai are going to run into trouble, and I don't want her to get hurt. She's a very special person, and she needs someone who has a delicate touch, you know?"
Zuko felt his face warming up again. "I didn't touch her!"
"Not so loud!" Ty Lee gave a little pout, and added, "I meant that she needs someone who can figure out her moods and stuff and be careful of her feelings. No offense, Zuko, but I can tell that you’re the kind of guy who doesn't really do that."
Well, she had a point, there. As far as Zuko was concerned, 'feelings' were enemy propaganda meant to make honorable warriors of the Fire Nation doubt themselves. Uncle had been big on them, and now that he was locked up, Zuko felt-
But then, feelings weren't real.
And even if they were, they weren't for Zuko. He couldn't afford them. It was feelings that had made him behave so dishonorably at that war meeting three years ago, feelings that had disappointed Father so much that had no choice but to give Zuko a harsh lesson on weakness.
Zuko didn't deserve feelings.
As much as he hated being told what to do, he had to admit that Ty Lee was right. "Okay. I'll discourage Mai."
In the lamp light, Ty Lee frowned. "Um, maybe just pretend that you're busy when she wants to hang out? Mai is smart, she'll figure it out, and you won't have to be discouraging, like you are."
"Fine. Now get out of my room."
Ty Lee bounced up off the bed. "Okay! Thanks and good night! And sorry for waking you up! Good night again!" She surprised him with a hug, a peck on the cheek, a pat on the head, and a surprisingly crisp bow before scampering off to one of the windows on the far wall and climbing out into the night.
Well. So much for that.
Zuko let himself drop back down to his pillow, and tried to put it all out of his head and get back to sleep.
He watched the sun rise, hours later.
05 - Smoke
Zuko could barely pay attention at the morning briefing, his attention constantly being dragged kicking and pouting over to Mai where she was sitting on the other side of Azula's desk. No matter how many times Zuko checked, she never disappeared into thin air and so solved the problem that life had presented to him.
Ty Lee (may the Agni Warrior disintegrate her) was dozing through the briefing, her head balanced precariously on one of her deceptively delicate-looking fists. No doubt she was tired from such late-night activates as breaking into Zuko's bedroom, dictating his social life to him, and keeping him up all night with worry about things he didn't understand in the slightest. Zuko decided to feel some very sarcastic sympathy for her.
Finally, the Firebender commander finished his report on the riot in the Lower Ring that was violently put down last evening, bowed to Azula, and departed. Immediately, Mai's attention snapped over to Zuko, and he thought he detected a brief flicker of a smile when she caught him looking at her, but maybe it was just the stress playing tricks with his eyes. She rose and stepped over to him with all the grace he had come to expect from her, and when she spoke her voice was perfectly even. "It has come to my attention that I'll be having lunch alone today."
It was like an Uncle-sized weight was lifted from Zuko's shoulders! "Great!"
"It occurred to me that we could eat alone together."
And suddenly, it was like he had two Uncles standing on top of his head spouting contradictory koans. "Oh. I, uh..." He suddenly had trouble remember the lines he had been rehearsing all night long. "I'm not repulsed by your company, but I unavoidably have another unavoidable commitment. Today."
"Oh." Mai's eyes narrowed. "We can do tea again if that works better for you?"
"No!" Ashes, she wasn't supposed to keep trying! All his plans had her running away in tears after he refused her the first time! Why were girls so unpredictable?! "I, uh, have to train. My Firebending. I have to train all day. Unavoidably."
"What a coincidence," Azula's voice rang out. Zuko turned to find her staring at him from her desk, the day's paper reports lying forgotten in front of her. "I was planning on a long training session myself. You should join me; Li and Lo will be there, and their observations are always quite helpful." Her painted lips slanted into a smirk. "After your impressive performance against the Avatar and his Waterbender, I'm very interested in the new tricks you must have learned."
The prospect nearly sent him right into Mai's arms, but Zuko was nothing if not honorable, and he had promised Ty Lee that he would protect Mai from himself. Biting back his frustration, Zuko bit out a, "Fine," and stomped out of his sister's office.
He left Mai standing there, still and quiet as a statue.
Zuko roared and punched out the biggest fireball he could manage, throwing all his rage into it and backing it up with every bit of muscle power in his arm.
It emerged as a streaky gout that was half smoke, and Azula casually brushed it aside without even properly rooting herself. "What was that? Where's the strength that overpowered the Avatar himself?" She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows. "Are going easy on me, Brother?"
"No!" Zuko still had the marks from the last time Azula thought he was holding back in one of their sparring matches. "I don't know what's wrong! Yesterday my Firebending was fine!"
From her seat at the edge of the garden courtyard, Li (or Lo) intoned, "His heart must conflict for power to wane." Lo (or Li) added, "Will and muscle cannot compensate for such pain." And then together they said, "As ever, Prince Zuko's emotions are his greatest bane."
Zuko sighed and let his whole body droop. Of course, he had trouble remember lines he'd rehearsed all night long, while the crazy old ladies could rhyme together on cue. Even his sister's groupies were better than him.
"Oh, Zuzu, when are you finally going to grow up?" Azula shook her head and sauntered over to him. "You really need to get over Uncle. He betrayed you. He's a selfish old man who chose a tacky teashop over your happiness. What kind of a lesser family member does that? He's not worth your sympathy."
"It's not that," Zuko growled. He didn't even want to think about Uncle, locked up in the palace's dungeons. "Uncle- he's getting what he deserves."
"Of course." Azula stared at him, tilting her head. "You're right, that's not it. Something else is bothering you."
Zuko turned and began retreating from the courtyard. "Forget about it. I don't feel like practicing right now, anyway."
Of course, Azula responded by trotting up alongside him. "Must you be so dramatic? I'm concerned about you. You're my brother, after all, and you should feel good after our great victory here. Come on, tell Little Sister what's bugging you, and then we can hug or bond or something." Zuko tried to ignore her, but then she added, "Because if you don't tell me, I'll be forced to investigate. I don't think either one of us wants that, hm?"
Zuko came to a stop. No, he didn't want Azula prying. She'd find out anyway, and the process would just be all the more torturous. With Azula, her investigations might even involve real torture, and she knew lies the way most other people knew their family and friends.
But wait, most of the time, Azula didn't lie, she just told the truth so that it lied for her, a smokescreen made from real fire. It had to work better than outright lying, considering how Zuko's attempts to fool Zhao had gone.
"I've started thinking about things. About myself. I don't regret siding with you under the city, but... I'm starting to think I'm not... worthy of what I used to want. I'm not sure I deserve-"
"Oh, honestly." Azula crossed her arms over her chest and gave one of those good, long rolls of her eyes she liked so much. " 'Deserve.' That's not even a real word. What you get out of life is what you take from it, and what you're strong enough to hold on to. You've helped kill the Avatar and take down the greatest city in the Earth Kingdom. You forsook the poisonous fool who was dragging you down. You're going home and you're going to be a real Prince of the Fire Nation again. So act like it!"
"If you're going to insist on acting like a weakling, clear the area and let me get back to my Firebending. As Ty Lee would say, you’re getting me down, yo."
Zuko nodded, and all but ran away. He hated it, but at least he had protected Mai. She didn't deserve any trouble just because she had really, really bad taste in men.
As soon as her irritating little Zuzu was gone, Azula threw herself into a Firebending kata that had her lungs pumping and her muscles screaming. Her flames blossomed in the air, heating the entire courtyard and wilting the flowers in the surrounding garden. Some of her larger blasts even rose higher than the outer walls of the palace, and it pleased Azula to think that the people in the Upper Ring would see the azure fires of their conqueror rising above the center of their city.
Despite what she had said, Azula wasn't giving up on Zuzu. Bringing him back to the Fire Nation was her mission her in the Earth Kingdom, whatever else she accomplished, and it pleased her to do so not in chains, but with him restored as a functional and contributing member of the glorious Royal Family. She knew that 'deserve' wasn't a word, but she had learned a new term that last time she had visited Ember Island, in one of the place's arcades, and the concept of 'bonus points' was one in which Azula firmly believed.
So how to get 'bonus points' from Zuko?
Well, obviously, she would have to fix Zuzu. He wasn't clever enough to have an existential crisis on his own, so it was simply a matter of finding out who and what had set him off, and then resolving the situation in a way that would restore his confidence. It was a new task for her, in addition to her duties running the occupation of Ba Sing Se, maintaining her superlative Firebending skill, and constantly evaluating for all the threats and opportunities that life gave only to the greatest of people.
That wouldn't be too hard; it was just a matter of scheduling.
Finishing her kata, Azula decided to have a bath. She could figure out which meetings to move in order to accommodate 'Fix Zuzu' Time while she soaked. It was such efficient combinations of effort that made Azula so successful.
07 - Apple
Despite the lousy start to the day, Zuko had managed to turn his afternoon around into a very productive time. During his escape from Azula, he had stumbled across a new staircase which in turn led to a heretofore unseen basement; it was the perfect place to express himself in a unique and artistic way, mostly consisting of snarling and shooting fire. Then he had sat in the dark and pondered his life for a few hours, in a way that Zuko acknowledged might look like sulking to ignorant people like his Uncle, but was definitely more like meditating, if you didn't count any of the rules for real meditation. Finally, he sneaked back to his suite of rooms in the palace, so that he could go straight to bed and try to forget all of his problems for the few hours he would spend unconscious.
He thought he made it without being seen, but no sooner had he closed the door behind him than someone knocked on it and startled the fire out of him. Once he made sure he wasn't having a heart attack, Zuko opened the door.
Mai was standing there, holding a bowl of fruit and a platter of beef-pork and noodles, with chopsticks suspended between her fingers. "I thought you might be hungry after your busy day of Firebending, so I brought dinner. The cooks I bossed around to make it said it's healthy."
Zuko blinked. Now this was just completely unfair. He had told her that he was going to be busy all day. Unavoidably! How did she- "How did you-"
"The food is a couple of hours old, actually, but you're a Firebender so you can just heat the noodles up. Then I waited around for you to come back, so that you wouldn't be 'unavoidably' busy." Mai's face might have changed expression, or maybe she had merely moved just enough to change the way the light fell on it. "I can be very accommodating when I like."
Zuko asked his brain if it had come up with a way to send Mai away without actually sending her away, but his brain was disturbingly silent on the matter, so he told it to keep working the problem and tried to buy some time by asking, "Where were you waiting? I just walked down this hallway."
"Shadows and I get along well." Mai shifted slightly again. "No offense, but can you either let me in or slam the door in my face? My arms are getting tired of holding these plates up."
Zuko's brain once again failed to provide a satisfactory excuse, so he sighed his surrender and stepped out of the doorway. "Come in."
Mai stepped right past Zuko into his receiving parlor, and deposited the plates and chopsticks on the table before kneeling. Zuko hesitated behind her, but finally he shuffled over and kneeled down opposite of her.
Mai wasn't quite sure what was going on, but obviously Zuko didn't exactly desire her company. Maybe he thought he was hiding it, and Mai would be the first to admit that she didn't have much experience with boy-girl interactions (in fact, she was rather proud of that, in a way that was mature and not at all like childish gender rivalries), but she was no idiot. She could tell when Zuko was being more distant that usual. The only question was whether Mai herself was the target of this behavior, or merely collateral damage for Zuko's overall bad mood.
Well, that was what this experiment would tell. Mai was proud of herself for developing it; most other girls might have lounged around worrying about what the object of their affections thought of them, or did something completely inane like trying to divine the truth by plucking petals from flowers or something, but Mai preferred to stick to more practical behavior.
She watched while Zuko picked up the bowl of noodles and beef-pork and heated it up in his hands. She watched while Zuko dug in with a pair of chopsticks. She watched while he proceeded to ignore her and concentrate on food, of all things.
Mai figured that she should probably say something. Unfortunately, she had overlooked preparing some suitable ice-breakers. "So, how did the Firebending go?" She held back a wince. Zuko had been Firebending with Azula; of course it had gone terribly.
Zuko gave her a quick glance. "Terribly."
"Ah." Silence returned to its tyrannical reign, but Mai refused to give up her ragtag rebellion. She struck a purely symbolic blow by saying, "I'm going to have one of your apples."
"I like to cut them into pieces."
"Can I borrow a knife?"
Zuko put his chopsticks down and started to reach for his belt, before he remembered who was asking. "Wait, what about your knives?"
"Are accusing a proper Lady of coming to a date armed?"
Zuko furrowed his brow.
Zuko's eyes went wide.
Mai started to smile in response, but the moment was short-lived. Zuko's laughing cut off abruptly, and the unscarred skin on his face when red, as he burst out with, "This is a date?"
Mai wanted to stab herself. (Or him. Whichever would hurt less.) Of course it was a date, but he wasn't supposed to know that. Ah well, she had no choice but to play it cool, now. "Sure. You're a boy, I'm a girl, and there's dinner. I think that meets the minimal qualifications." He didn't look amused by that, and the Dark Lord Silence once again broke in and sought to stamp out all dissent, but Mai would accept only a successful conversation or death. (Hopefully not death). "If it makes you feel better, let's say I'm a friend, and then we don't have to worry about social expectations that we're not equipped to deal with." On impulse, she added, "I do want to be your friend, you know."
Zuko looked up sharply at that. "Why?"
'Why?' What kind of a stupid question was that? Moreover, how was she going to answer it without admitting her desire to feel his lips smashed up against hers in an improbably pleasant form of physical contact?
"I guess... because I think I need a friend like you," she finally said. "I know we've never been close, but... I think there's a Zuko-shaped hole in my life. Why not fix it?"
Mai stared back.
This was where she was supposed to say something really profound, wasn't it? Something that would get her romantic intentions across so eloquently that Zuko would be moved to spontaneous lip-smashing. Mai, however, knew better than to try that; it would just lead to more awkwardness, some embarrassment, and bad comedy. Instead, she decided to show rather than tell, so she took one of the apples and bit into the fruit while giving Zuko a sultry look.
The apple sprayed its inner juices straight into her face, sending her blinking and sputtering. "Well, now you know why I usually cut them up, first."
Then Zuko surprised her by laughing again. It was quiet laughter, but this time, he didn’t try to stop it..
This time, Mai had time to share her smile. "And that, Prince Zuko, is why you need me as a friend."
Zuko had to admit that he felt a lot better after dinner. Mai had stayed while he ate, and though their conversation had been nothing particularly stimulating, none of it had made Zuko feel like an idiot, so it was easily among the top ten experiences of his life in the last three years.
Maybe Ty Lee was wrong. Maybe Mai didn't actually like him, and she had somehow grown from a quiet and snotty little girl into a quiet but friendly young lady who stabbed people. Then he wouldn't have to avoid her, because even if Zuko screwed up, Mai had other friends (Ty Lee and Azula, granted, but they were still better than nothing, on average), and losing one friend of several wasn't a terrible tragedy.
Of course, Zuko never had friends before, so he was merely guessing, but the logic held up.
Now he just had to figure out how to fix the rest of his life. With his stomach full and one problem already solved, Zuko was almost inclined to think that so long as there was no further interference, he might have a shot at not hating his life.
After all, how much bad luck could one person have?
TO BE CONTINUED