Mai hated the lucid days most.
Not that she liked the other days. She didn't enjoy seeing her old friend (enemy rival tormentor possibly future sister-in-law) brought low, no matter what the whispers she pretended not to hear said. Her friendship with Azula had always been complicated, which made their current relationship -- such that it was -- even more so.
That was why she hated the lucid days most.
"My lady." Anxiety painted the guard's face an alarming mix of tension and panic. "The princess is currently indisposed. May I suggest coming back at another time?"
Mai smiled. Another person more familiar with her moods would have taken a step back. Unfortunately the guard was new and didn't know any better. Mai wondered how long this one would last. Those charged with watching Azula turned over with dizzying frequency. "You may suggest it, but that doesn't mean I will listen."
Flustered, the guard gave a little bow and let her step past. For other residents on this small island, indisposed meant caught in the traps laid forth by their own minds, lost in a maze where their visitors could not follow.
For Azula, it meant she was clear-eyed, sane, and perfectly able to hold a proper conversation.
It also meant she was dangerous. Even with her tangled hair, the dark circles under her eyes, and the pallor of her skin, there was no forgetting that. Forgetting meant leaving yourself vulnerable and there was nothing Azula loved more than preying on your vulnerabilities. Three years after the war had ended, that still had not changed.
"My, my, the Fire Lord's lady has deigned to grace me with her presence today. To what do I owe this honor?"
Mai met the hateful gaze through a paltry barrier of evenly spaced iron bars. It was a gamble trusting Azula to tell the truth. But they needed this information. Zuko needed this information.
"Tell me about the Dai Li."
Zuko hated it when she visited Azula. Oh, he never tried to stop her from going. He knew better and on the rare occasions he forgot, a well-placed knife jogged his memory.
But that didn't change his feelings on the matter.
"You're different when you come back," he replied one day when she'd grown exasperated with his attempts to change her mind and had gifted him with a particularly biting comment. It had been not long after the war ended, still in the embryonic days of Zuko's reign.
"You're imagining things. She may be your sister, but she was my friend too."
"Mai." She closed her eyes against his voice. When they were alone, Zuko made her name sound like a charm, something to be cherished and held close to your heart. Most days she liked that, no matter how she acted; on days like this, however, she wished he wouldn't exploit that weakness. It reminded her too much of his younger sister. "It isn't your fault."
She refused to speak to him for the next two days.
When she finally did, they acted as if nothing had happened. Perhaps not the best way to settle an argument, but they were still feeling each other out in this new, post-war world where Zuko was Fire Lord and the Avatar his best friend. The Avatar and his friends had accepted her easily enough, despite everything that had happened in the past, but Zuko had changed. And during her time in the Boiling Rock, so had she. They were re-learning each other, just as she was learning that the Water Tribe siblings, the Kyoshi warrior, and the blind girl weren't as bad as she'd previously thought.
If only other rifts were so easy to mend.
"The Dai Li?" Azula dismissed them with a clumsy wave of her bound hands. "Didn't they run back to the Earth Kingdom when they abandoned their duty to protect me?"
Mai kept her mouth shut. She'd heard the details from Li and Lo about Azula's decline before that last agni kai against Zuko. There was no reason Azula needed to know she knew the truth. It'd only make things more awkward than they already were. Instead she said, "Actually, the Earth King disbanded them. It was one of the first things he did once when he was restored to the throne."
"Then why are you asking me?" Azula gestured to the cell she lived in. Mai tried her best to ignore the fact that the walls were padded, and that Azula's hands were encased to prevent her from firebending. "I don't get out much."
"They used to let you out on the beach before you tried to kill the head guard," Mai said gently.
Azula closed the distance between them in the blink of an eye, her body colliding with hard, unforgiving iron. It took all of Mai's reserve not to recoil. Behind her, she heard the guards mutter with worry. She silenced them with a sharp gesture.
Laughter bubbled from Azula, and no amount of denial could deafen Mai from the underlying madness. "What do you know? You're out there, living with dear, little Zuzu in the palace that should have been mine."
"That may be true but that doesn't change the fact you were the last master the Dai Li served before they were dissolved."
Surprisingly, her words placated the other woman. Azula narrowed her eyes. "Why are you so interested in the Dai Li anyway?"
"Because they tried to kill Zuko."
"Stop coddling me. I can put on a shirt by myself." But Mai heard the affection beneath the exasperation.
The Water Tribe girl, on the other hand, did not. "Zuko, let Mai dress you. You don't want to reopen that wound." Katara paused. "Again."
The expression on Zuko's face could only be described as grumpy. Mai took advantage of his distraction to smooth the shirt over his body, enjoying the feel of lean muscle beneath smooth silk, and neatly tied the sash before he could complain again. "Put both of us out of your misery and accept Katara's offer to heal you."
"It's just a scratch."
Mai glared. He made it sound like he'd repeated those words a hundred times before. And all right, perhaps he had. It wasn't like her to hover but the memory of Zuko collapsed on the floor of the Earth King's throne room, a puddle of blood pooling beneath him, was not one she'd soon forget. The Fire Nation needed a Fire Lord. This Fire Lord. His death was not something that Fire Nation could survive. Not now, not when peace was too new and fragile.
Besides, he was her Zuko. He needed someone to look after him. The last time he'd gone somewhere without her, he'd gotten himself shot by Azula's lightning.
The memory of what Azula had done to him made her voice sharper than she'd intended. "If by scratch, you mean impalement."
Zuko noticed the change in her mood. "You visited Azula again today." It wasn't a question.
Mai glanced at Katara who'd moved unobtrusively towards the balcony to give them privacy. She had no doubts she listened to every word they said and would be relying it to the Avatar later. Who knew Aang and his wife would be so nosy? How had Zuko survived his time with them?
"I needed to discuss something with her."
"You told her about the assassination attempt?" When she didn't reply, he turned, gently brushing aside her fingers. Why couldn't she straighten the collar just right? "I don't think Azula's a reliable source of information on that subject."
"And I don't think you can find one that's more."
Zuko touched her hair, curling his fingers around one of her buns, sliding through the sleek strands. "I told you. We're working on it. There's no reason to get involved. Please don't worry."
Mai pressed her lips together, swallowing the angry words that rose in her throat. She touched the bandage covering his left shoulder. A few inches lower and to the side and the stone spike would have gone through his heart. "Tell me not to worry all you want. It won't stop me."
He was silent for a moment. Then he said, resignation punctuating every syllable, "I don't suppose I can stop you from whatever you're planning to do either?"
She smiled. "I'd like to see you try."
Because unlike Mai, no one else had figured out the Dai Li was involved.
The Water Tribe girl followed her outside.
When Mai had had enough of the shadow trailing her foorsteps, she whirled to face Katara. "Can I help you?"
"I want in."
Mai paused. Zuko letting her do what she wanted was one thing; he knew he couldn't stop her if he tried. But the Avatar's wife? He wouldn't be happy about that. Putting Katara in unnecessary danger was the last thing anyone should do. Everyone knew better than to anger the Avatar.
Then again, who said the Avatar would be angry? That assumed Katara would even be hurt, and there were some serious doubts as to whether or not that was even possible. She was the one who'd ultimately defeated Azula, after all. And Mai would be crazy not to let a bender accompany her, if Katara offered freely and of her own will. Mai wasn't foolish enough not to use advantages when presented to her. It was something she had learned from Azula.
Mai chose her words with care. "I'm not sure I know what you mean."
Katara glowered. "I'm going with you."
From asking to demanding, all in the blink of an eye. "I see what Zuko means now," Mai murmured.
"Never mind." Mai turned serious. "I appreciate the offer but--"
"You do realize I wasn't asking, right?"
"Of course, but I wanted to maintain the illusion of social grace."
Katara's lips twitched. "Why don't we just skip that part? I don't like it. I don't think you like it. And it's a waste of both our times. Besides, I'm a peasant, aren't I? We don't follow social graces."
Her bluntness was almost refreshing. "All right. Do you want to know what I learned from Azula?"
Katara nodded. "That, and what exactly you're planning. We can't have the Fire Lord's future wife getting herself killed because she wanted revenge."
"Who said I wanted revenge?" Mai replied in a dangerously soft voice.
"No one," Katara said gently. "But you loved Zuko enough to stand up to Azula when she tried to kill him. What else could you possibly want with the people who tried to kill him now?"
The fire and heat were dampened today, spent from what Mai suspected had been a spectacular fit judging by the scorch marks along the stone floor and tattered wall padding. Even Azula's voice was listless.
"I wanted to thank you."
"Ah." Azula half-smiled. "So the information was useful. I take it the Dai Li won't ever try to kill dear little Zuzu again." She looked at Mai expectantly.
"I didn't kill them." Katara hadn't allowed it. She'd insisted that it would be a diplomatic disaster if the Dai Li were killed. That the Earth Kingdom would view as a throwback to the wartime days, when the Fire Nation did what they want regardless of the consequences.
Logically, Mai knew this. She even understood it. But they'd tried to hurt Zuko. Logic had no place here.
No matter what the Water Tribe girl had said beforehand, Mai hadn't been able to take her vengeance. She should have known better than to trust the Avatar's wife.
"But you wanted to."
"But I wanted to," she agreed. No point lying. Azula had been wrong about her allegiances in the end, but that didn't mean she didn't understand some things about Mai.
"Still the perfect lady." Azula yawned. "How boring." She waved her hand at Mai in dismissal. "Well, now that you given your thanks, run along now to my dear brother and live your boring life with your boring rule in your boring palace. And leave me alone."
Mai ignored her. "I'll be back," she promised. "And I'll bring Zuko."
Zuko was furious. "Do you have any idea how dangerous that was? They're earthbenders!"
"Calm down, drama queen. It was fine. I was fine. Besides, Katara was with me." Between her knives and Katara's waterbending, they'd handled the Dai Li insurgents well enough.
To her relief, there'd only been four culprits. It hadn't been the entire contingent of secret police, which had been her secret fear. A unified resistance would have spelled trouble for Zuko's reign. He had spent the last three years working too hard to make amends for one hundred years of war. Inroads had been made but some scars ran deep and would take time to heal. Zuko's rule was still new enough to be shattered.
Her assurances did little to soothe Zuko. If anything, they made things worse. "And you couldn't have taken guards with you? Royal firebenders? Mai, you can't--"
She kissed him.
It worked for a little while but then Zuko jerked back.
"Stop trying to distract me!"
"You weren't complaining." Mai walked to the balcony. "Zuko, don't wrap me in a cocoon of silk and cotton. I've had enough of that. I played the doll for my parents. I played the loyal sidekick for your sister. Let me be me for you." She searched his face, but the afternoon sun left the unscarred side in shadow and she couldn't read his expression.
"Unless..." She looked away. "...you don't want me to be me."
"Mai." She heard Zuko come up behind her and then felt his arms wrap around her waist. Not too loose, not too tight. Just the way she preferred it. She could barely notice the stiffness with which he held his left arm. Another few days and it'd be like the wound was never there.
"Is that what you think I'm doing?"
"Not think. Know." She reached up and touched his face, her palm cradling the scarred features. "Let me help. You let the Avatar help."
"I don't think I could stop Aang even if I tried."
He had a point. Mai kind of doubted Katara would let Aang be stopped either. She faced him.
"What makes you think you can stop me?"
Zuko opened his mouth, reconsidered, and then closed it with an audible snap. After a moment, he said, "All right."
Mai pulled his head down and pressed a quick kiss against his temple, grazed the rough skin with her lips.
"Good. Now, are you doing anything tomorrow? I wanted to visit to an island with you."