He stormed off, despite the risk of looking childish.
Had it been before, when he was younger, he would have demanded respect. He would have used his authority of heir prince and make things right. Had it been before, Azula wouldn’t have dared to mock him.
But that had been before, and any authority Zuko might have had, was gone. The scar on his face was proof of that. (And the rumors that his father might decree that the next Firelord would be, in fact, Azula and not him, but he would not think about it right now.)
His anger was burning, and this time he does not care that his scar is exposed for any passersby to see it. He’s basically daring anyone to come up and call him a beast, a monster, a curse upon the palace and the royal family. An aberration that was born marked by the heavens and should have been left to die while still an infant.
He stopped when he got to the top of the wall, facing the darkness beyond the palace’s boundaries. He felt tempted to throw his mask away and just scream at the void, but in the end he settled with an angry grunt and the hard drop of the mask on the floor.
He panted as he tried to control his anger. Control his tears of humiliation from falling down, or anything else that could serve as a point for Azula to demonstrate how ‘pathetic Zuzu was’.
“Aren't you cold?” Her voice took him by surprise, but he did not show it. He just kept staring at the ugly thing contrasting with the dark floor. The red metal and the golden details reflecting brightly the light of the nearby torches.
He heard her footsteps coming closer to him, and he let his head fall so his hair covered the scar. “Leave me alone,” he barked without looking at her.
“I'll take that as a ‘no’,” Mai always refused to do as he says, and she did not fear the animal people used to say he became during the full moon, so she kept walking until she was before his form leaned to the fence of the wall, “You firebenders never get bothered by the chili weather anyway.”
Had it been anyone else he would have left already, but knowing Mai, she would most likely follow him to anywhere he decided to go to. So he just accepted her presence, but did not say or do anything to keep the conversation going, letting the silence fall between them in a quiet plea to not to talk about it.
That didn't stop her from breaking it, “You know she only messes with you like that because she knows it affects you.”
He scoffs at her feeble attempt of counsel, her tone making it seem like everything is so simple and her advice is not demanding at all, “You’re saying I shouldn’t be affected.”
“I’m saying you don’t have to show it affects you.”
“Like it’s easy.”
“Of course it is. Look at me, do you know anything that affects me?”
“That doesn’t mean Azula doesn’t.”
“True. But it makes less fun for her if I don’t react to what she says.”
He felt her expectant eyes set on him, and he sighed, letting part of his anger leave from his chest and misery replace it instead.
“I can’t do that,” he says in a small voice, placing his own hand on top of his left eye and his marred skin, “I hate it too much.”
“Here, let me see it.”
Mai flinched closer, her hands going to his face and he turned around, backed away, looking down so his hair would cover it, “No.”
“Come on, it's not like I've never seen it before,” she spoke adamantly, still refusing to back away and he had to use his hands to prevent her from coming closer.
“I don’t want your pity.”
“And you won’t have it. Just let me look at it.” Eventually she won and cupped her hands around his cheeks to make him look at her, his hair getting out of the way when she pulled him towards her. He took a deep breath as she analyzed his face thoroughly, and he let go when she spoke, “It’s not that bad.”
“I’m the one looking. And I don’t see anything too bad.”
He was too tired to have that conversation, so he just pushed her hands away from him and turned his back to her, but that didn’t make her leave either.
“And wearing that mask doesn’t help,” she continued as if nothing had happened, “It only attracts attention.”
“You say the scar won’t?”
“A person bearing a scar is a survivor. A person bearing a mask is a clown,” he saw her picking the mask from the floor through the corner of his eye, “Which one are you?”
“I’m neither,” he grunted in distaste, “I’m just a beast.”
His answer clearly did not please Mai as she tutted in frustration, walking closer so she stood right beside him, her shoulder brushing with his, “That’s too dramatic, even for you.”
He took the mask from her hands roughly before roaring, “Just leave me alone.”
She sighed, her short patience finally coming to an end, and she grabbed the mask from him. But before he could complain or tell her to leave again, she turned to the emptiness of the night beyond the wall before them and tossed it as far away as possible - which, considering Mai’s ability, was pretty far.
His cry of protest, however, was lost in his throat when he saw her reprimanding look, piercing more than one of her knives, and he gulped at the feeling of her finger pressing against his chest.
“You’re not your scar, Zuko. You know that,” she spoke harshly, as Zuko apparently couldn’t listen to her otherwise, “People say that you’re a monster? Prove them wrong. They said you’d never return to the Capital, and you’re here now. You’re bigger than that. So cut the drama and get over it.”
He looked at her awestruck, his eyes a little wider as her words sank in and fueled him inside until he finally managed to let that small anger and that bigger misery give place to the same determination he had when he vowed to himself that he’d would get permission from the Firelord to return to his hometown.
Permission from his brutal father to return to his messed up family.
Zuko closed his eyes and breathed deeply, letting his shoulders relax and the tension leave his body. When he opened them, Mai was still there, looking like she would kill him if he tried to push her away once again.
“How come you only comfort me with lectures?” He mused out loud and the glint of killing intention on her eyes fade a little bit.
“I’m not good at that,” she crossed her arms, raising one eyebrow in defiance, “If that’s what you want, better find someone else,” she said pointedly, even though both of them knew that was never going to happen.
“Who else would see behind my scar like you do?” His tone was tender, but it only made her roll her eyes and sigh in distaste.
“Now you’re being cheesy. Is better than being dramatic, but it’s still bad.”
He smiled and pulled her closer by her waist, kissing the top of her forehead. “I’m not sorry,” he said softly and he felt her sigh again, this time in contentment, even though she didn’t do anything to reciprocate his hug.
“Whatever. Let go of me and let’s get back to the party,” she drew away from his arms, taking his hand and dragging him behind her as she started to walk back the same place he had marched down earlier, "And you’d better act like a prince.”
A small laugh burst out from his chest. He couldn’t help but find adorable when Mai acted like that, not complaining for a second as he tried to match her pace, “Yes, Ma’am.”
His smile faded, and he let his serious and regal expression take over as he walked back through the stairs and to the hall where the banquet was being held, before all of the children of the ministers and generals. And also Azula.
He squeezed her hand a little bit for reassurance, and breathed out in relief when he felt her mimic the action to give him a little bit of strength. The life in the palace was suffocating. But if he had Mai, then he could bear it.