The moon had not yet set. Mai stood in the shadows at the gate of her family's estate in the caldera as she watched Zuko leave the palace and pull his hood deeper over his face. For a second she wondered why he was going all incognito to visit her, but when he turned and walked away from her gate she pursed her lips in annoyance. What, by Agni, was he up to? She gestured at the servants not to bother her as she quietly followed him from a distance through the caldera and up to the ancient tower that held the royal prison.
Then it struck her; he was going to visit his traitor uncle. Mai pressed her palm to her face, feeling a headache coming. What was it with Zuko? He was no longer banished. Wasn't that what he'd wanted? Shouldn't he be happy now, or something?
What was it that he wanted, though? More than once on their journey back from Ba Sing Se, had she found him staring out at the sea for hours on end, brooding over Agni knows what. And now he was sneaking around at night, risking his father's anger, when he had just come back to h… home. This was not how she had imagined it, not how it was supposed to be. It was all so damn stupid.
No matter that she had told him to - by Agni, even Azula had told him to stop worrying - their words didn't seem to get through to him. It was so frustrating. Why couldn't he be a little more like she remembered him? He used to be happy, Mai thought as she turned and walked back to the estate, back when they'd played in the palace gardens as children. She counted off the Fire Festivals she'd spend away from the caldera on her fingers and stopped. Four years. Had it really been that long? Now that she thought about it, she had not seen him at all since before he got … But that was all good now, wasn't it? They'd had an official announcement and all. Mai shrugged. He really was being an idiot for no reason.
But then why wasn't he happy? The thought kept on coming back to her, crept up on her at the oddest of moments. The next afternoon, when she was practicing with her knives in the palace gardens, waiting for Zuko to finish yet another meeting, the thought of how her mother and Princess Ursa used to play pai-sho in the shade by the fire-roses caught her unaware. Her shuriken missed the mark, something that had not happened in years, and she had to get a servant to fetch it from the bushes.
Later that night Mai woke alone in her room, drenched in cold sweat from an uneasy dream of burning apples and happy memories long gone sour. The moon was shining in through the shutters when Mai looked around and she realized that it had to be several hours past midnight, since even the servants had gone to bed. Not wanting to go back to sleep just yet, Mai wrapped herself in a shawl and stepped onto her balcony, trying to shake the feeling of unease the dream had left her with.
Even in the middle of the night the royal palace was not completely dark. Mai searched for the familiar window among the lights, wondering what he was doing up at this hour. She'd briefly talked to him after his meeting with the Fire Lord and he'd seemed even more on edge, brushing off her offer of comfort, striding past with that angry gait she'd come to loathe, claiming he had to talk to Azula.
I wish you'd let me in, Zuko.
There was a sudden chill in the air and Mai pulled her shawl tighter around herself. A shooting-star brightened the night sky, snuffing out the stars with its glow. A sudden gust rustled the leaves in the trees below her window, filling the air with an almost chitinous rustling, like so many bugs crawling over the forest floor.
Make a wish.
Mai spun around and a hail of knives buried themselves in the plaster where the voice had come from.
Crap. She better not need a new fiancé. He usually knew better than to sneak up on her, but he'd been acting particularly stupid the last couple of days.
Her voice echoed in the darkness, afterimages of the shooting-star's path flickering before her eyes. Slowly her night vision returned and she searched the darkness around her for the intruder. She was alone.
Mai sighed; maybe she should go back to bed. Her eyes returned once more to Zuko's window, but the palace lay dark and forbidding, the light in Zuko's window gone, leaving her oddly sad at the loss. Mai's eyes lingered a moment longer on where his light had been. Good night, Zuko.
Make a wish. There was that voice again, that Mai was now certain was a figment of her imagination. She took one last look at the horizon, the fallen star's glow outlining the islands nearby.
"Well, maybe I should," Mai muttered to herself. She closed her eyes and wished.
Someone who was definitely getting dismissed was opening the shutters. Mai groaned and turned away from the offending sunlight.
The same someone coughed politely and Mai opened sleep heavy eyes, frowning at the servant kowtowing in front of her bed.
"Lady Mai, your honorable mother, Lady Zhang, wishes me to inform you that she will be visiting Princess Ursa without you, if you are not presentable and ready to leave on time."
"What?" None of this made sense and if she just could go back to sleep for a few more minutes she'd surely not have to kill anyone. Mai's eyes drifted shut.
"Lady Mai, your honorable mother, Lady Zhang, wishes me to inform you that –"
"Yes," Mai grumbled, "I know!"
The servant fell silent and Mai sank back onto her pillow. Who'd want to go visit one of mother's stupid friends anyway, even if it was Princess Ursa.
Mai sat up with lightening speed, her hands reaching for the single knife-holster she wore to bed. Princess Ursa? That wasn't possible! Zuko's mother was dead, or missing, or something, right? Had she come back? And there was something strange about her room, too. Mai took in the unfamiliar surroundings, staring flabbergasted at the black sand beach outside her window. How by Agni had she ended up on Ember Island?
"Tell my mother I'll be there." Mai addressed the servant, who was still kowtowing, eyes timidly on the floor.
"Yes, Lady Mai."
There was a breakfast tray set out on the table by the window and Mai held out her hand for her robe, gesturing toward another servant to draw her a bath.
She settled on the cushion by the low table, drawing her legs up under her. This was all more than a bit surreal. Maybe it was a dream? But the tea in her cup was hot and the knife she pricked her finger with drew blood. How could this be? She clearly remembered going to bed in their house at the palace caldera. Mai shook her head to clear it. What by Agni was going on?
Lady Zhang gave her daughter a disapproving once over and pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Would it be too much to ask to wear something remotely cheerful every now and then?"
"You could always adopt Ty Lee, mother." Mai inspected her fingernails in a practiced, bored gesture. Some things apparently never changed.
Mai leaned her head against the side of their palanquin, watching the countryside pass by. Lush flowering bushes and palm trees gave way to volcanic rock and sheer cliffs as they turned onto the winding road that led, following the rugged coastline, to the royal estates. It wasn't a long ride; her own family was, after all, royalty too, if minor and further down the noble food chain than her mother liked.
As they pulled up to the house, Zuko and Azula came into sight. They were outside, practicing some kind of firebending routine, juggling fireballs back and forth between them. It almost looked like a game, but Mai scoffed at the thought. Azula and Zuko playing a game that did not involve trying to kill each other? Ridiculous.
The servants helped her mother out of the palanquin, and Mai took a deep breath, hating the anxious feeling that was creeping up on her, crawling over her skin like ants.
Azula, face scrunched up in concentration, seemed to have trouble keeping her three fireballs alive and moving, dropping one when the palanquin came to a halt in front of the house.
"You need to breathe with the pulse of the fire." Zuko, his back still to them, gently corrected his sister, and Mai, waiting for the attack that didn't come, wondered if he had a deathwish.
"Keep it up, you two." Zuko's father came out of the house to greet her mother and walking past Zuko, patted his son approvingly on the back. "I'm sure she'll get it eventually."
And before Mai could truly take in the strangeness of everyone's behavior Zuko turned and smiled at his father and Mai froze, staring wide-eyed at Zuko's face.
"No scar," she whispered. He had no scar. Mai steadied herself on the palanquin, suddenly feeling faint. Could it be true? Had she really wished upon a star and …?
Lunch was a strange affair, if not entertaining. Prince Ozai was doting on his wife in a way that made Mai's mother straighten her back and pick at her food, disapproving and seething inside but unable to so much as frown in their direction. It almost made Mai smile.
But then there was Zuko. She was seated next to him, as her station as his fiancée dictated. Mai picked up a smoked abalone with her chopsticks, the flavor turning to ash in her mouth. Quick to smile and more relaxed than she had seen him in weeks, Zuko laughed good-naturedly at Azula's jokes and even managed to charm a smile out of her mother. His behavior toward her, on the other hand, was nothing but proper and courteous. It made Mai want to scream in frustration. She kept sneaking glances at Zuko's now too perfect profile wondering what to make of him, of all of it to be honest, looking for evidence that this new, happy Zuko still liked her. They said that nothing good ever came of spirit gifts. Mai stabbed at the artfully arranged food on her plate. She'd never been a graceful loser.
When the adults excused themselves after the meal, retiring to the porch for drinks and gossip, Zuko bowed to her and offered to show her the gardens. Recognizing his thinly veiled excuse for what it was, a ploy to get away from their mothers' endless chatter, she gratefully agreed. When he led her down the winding path to the beach, away from the house, Zuko's hand found hers, and Mai's heart started to beat faster. She had to keep her eyes on the ground to hide her flushed cheeks. The path took a sharp turn behind a lush growth of jasmine where Zuko grabbed her around the waist, pulling her down onto the well manicured lawn. The flowering bush shielded them from view as Mai landed partially on top of grinning Zuko.
Mai would have protested this kind of treatment under normal circumstances, purely out of principle, but his lips were on hers and by Agni, she wanted this, wanted affirmation that nothing had changed between them, that his happiness still included her. Mai fisted her hands in his robes, pulling him closer, kissing him back with passion fueled by pent up anxiety, determined not to let go any time soon, not caring that anyone could come after them at any minute. This was what she'd wished for ever since she'd been old enough to understand her own feelings.
Her thigh slid between his and she could feel the reassuring hardness of his arousal press against her hip. Mai sent a silent prayer to Agni in relief. He wants me, he still wants me.
"Mai…" Her name coming from his lips made her shudder and she kissed the sound away before he could ruin the moment.
Zuko gently freed his arms, only to take hold of her waist, pulling her closer, his fingers digging into the back of her legs, as he arched up against her and into the kiss. And then her world turned upside down and suddenly Zuko was on top of her, his thumb caressing her right nipple through her clothes. Mai suppressed a moan and shifted in his arms, planting hot kisses on his neck as his hand snuck lower and between them, then down, over her stomach and between her legs, pressing down just where she wanted it most. She sucked in her lower lip and bit down on it, swallowing hard, swallowing away the sound, when all she wanted was to scream while pleasure swept over her and carried her away.
When she opened her eyes again, Zuko's perfect, unscarred face was staring down at her. It was strangely unsettling. Mai reached up and pressed her lips to his, kissing away her sudden unease. His hand caught hers and she laced her fingers with his, reaching for the hardness between his legs, enjoying how his eyes glazed over under her touch and how he breathlessly moaned her name as he came.
"I missed you." Zuko ran his thumb over her cheek and Mai leaned into the caress.
"Mmh." Mai tightened her grip around his waist, her voice teasing. "Missed me? Were you gone?"
"Hey, that was totally not my fault. Dad wanted to spend some quality time with the family after Uncle's coronation." Zuko's fingers ghosted along her jaw. He pushed her chin up with his thumb, pressing a kiss to her lips. "Chan and Ruon-Jian are having a 'welcome back' party tonight. You coming?" He smiled, his voice tender, "I'll make it up to you."
Mai nodded, hiding a smile in his shirt. Fire Lord Iroh? Really? If that was the price for Zuko being happy, well that wasn't so bad, was it?