“This is Mai,” Zuko said. “My girlfriend.”
The room was quiet enough to hear a pin drop.
Right. Mai kind of wanted to die. They were just… staring at her. She hadn’t expected a positive reaction, by any means, but no reaction at all…? Ugh. Little was worse.
“It’s nice to officially meet you!” Aang said, giving her a bright smile. The rest of the group followed with tentative waves and a few nods in her general direction.
The awkwardness might have gone on another five minutes if she and Zuko hadn’t been asked for by an advisor, cutting her introduction short. Well, Zuko had been asked for, and he’d slipped his hand into hers before pulling her along. So she hadn’t been given much say in the matter.
“They’ll come around,” Zuko told her later, when they were lying in bed. “You’ll see.” He chuckled, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead. “They took me in, after all.”
Mai wanted to believe him. “If you say so.”
Sokka was first.
Mai saw him struggling to walk down the steps of the palace, awkwardly attempting to maneuver his crutches but wincing every time his injured leg hit the ground.
“Let me help,” she offered, lifting his arm around her shoulders to help take the weight off his foot. Perhaps she should have waited for him to give confirmation, but in some ways Sokka reminded her of Zuko - rarely willing to accept assistance, even when he needed it. He let her take his crutches, though, and she interpreted that as a sign of silent cooperation.
Sokka gave her a crooked grin when they’d reached the foot of the steps. “Thanks.”
She nodded curtly, returning his crutches to him. “It was no trouble.” She turned to walk away, but stiffened and stopped in her tracks as Sokka placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I, uh… This is kind of random, but I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am for - for what you did at the Boiling Rock.” Sokka cleared his throat. “For saving us. Me. My dad. Suki. Zuko.”
Mai winced at the memory. The despair, the rage in Azula’s eyes. The paralyzing fear that had ripped through her chest when she’d watched her friend - if Azula could ever be called that - drop into her lightning stance. And yet…
She’d do it again. A hundred times.
“I don’t think you should be thanking me for doing the right thing,” Mai said as she slowly turned around. “For doing the bare minimum, really.”
Sokka laughed. “Maybe you’re right. But from what I’ve heard, treason against the Fire Nation isn’t usually considered the bare minimum.” He hesitated, then offered her a grateful smile. “I mean it, though. If you hadn’t saved us…” Something akin to grief flickered in his eyes. An expression that was a little more raw, a little more tired. “I can’t lose anyone else,” he finally said. “So thank you, Mai.”
Mai stared at him in perhaps more shock than was necessary, because Sokka laughed again.
“Can I hug you?” he asked. “It’s kind of an official thing to dub you as part of my friend group.”
Mai hesitated, but nodded, and Sokka shuffled forward to pull her into a brief, tight embrace that Mai was surprised to find herself returning.
“I wouldn’t have pegged you as a hugger,” she said after releasing him.
Sokka chuckled. “For a long time, I guess I wasn’t.” He winked at her. “But things change, right?”
She supposed they did.
Aang was second.
Mai wondered, perhaps, if he would have been first, had his duties as the Avatar not taken up so much of his time, especially in those first days after the war had formally ended.
“Hi, Mai!” Aang said cheerily, waving at her from atop his bison. “Want to take a ride on Appa with me?”
Mai glanced around her, as if someone else named Mai would appear from behind a pillar to take him up on his offer. When none did, she responded with a hesitant nod.
She wished Zuko was there.
“Do you need help getting up?” Aang asked as she walked towards him, pausing when she reached Appa’s side. “I can provide a boost if you need it.”
Mai raised an eyebrow at him, a smirk unwittingly inching onto her lips. “Could you provide a boost even if I don’t need it?”
Aang returned her smirk with a wide grin. “Your wish is my command, Lady Mai.”
Mai was mortified to admit that a startled yelp escaped her lips as Aang airbended her up and onto Appa’s saddle, but he didn’t comment on it. She supposed he was probably used to that sort of sound being an instinctive reaction.
“Ready?” Aang asked. He didn’t wait for her to respond before gently snapping the bison’s reins. “Yip yip, Appa!”
He reminded her of Ty Lee in that respect - never waiting for an answer unless one was truly required.
Appa roared and took off into the sky. Mai kept her eyes squeezed shut for longer than she’d care to admit.
After the initial anxiety of flying higher than she ever had in her life faded, Mai found herself relaxing into her seat on the saddle, one elbow resting comfortably on the edge. Aang chattered aimlessly about post-war plans, and Mai commented every now and then if his ramblings had to do with Zuko. It was… strange. Everything about Aang caused a tiny smile to rest perpetually on her face.
No wonder her boyfriend was so fond of him.
“Wanna go higher?” Aang offered at one point, an excited twinkle in his eyes.
Mai didn’t respond at first, staring upwards at the endless pink sky. “Can you take me into the clouds?” she finally asked.
Aang laughed. “Let’s find out!”
Katara was third.
“I told you, Zuko can’t see anyone right now!”
Mai paused upon hearing the irritation that drenched Katara’s voice. She’d just turned the corner into the hallway that Zuko’s room was off of, and, trusting her better judgement, chose to hang back.
Katara was staring down a tall man in formal robes - oh. Ew. Mai recognized him as one of Zuko’s more annoying advisors. Her boyfriend hated the man, too.
“Master Katara.” She glared at the noble, and respect bubbled in Mai’s chest.
“Master Katara.” Mai relished in the discomfort of the man’s tone. “I understand that you wish to allow the Fire Lord as much rest as possible, but he has responsibilities he cannot abandon -”
“Zuko can’t fulfill those responsibilities immediately after a healing session!” Katara snapped. “How would you like if someone bandaged your broken arm and expected you to lift weights afterwards?”
The advisor stared at her in confusion. “But my arm isn’t broken.”
Katara placed her hand atop the flask that rested on her hip. “Not yet.”
Mai bit her tongue to stop herself from laughing as blood drained from the man’s face. He gave Katara a hasty apology and took his leave.
That interaction had certainly raised her spirits.
But no visitors…
Mai’s grip tightened on the ceramic plate in her hands. The cup of tea resting atop it quivered. If Katara said Zuko wasn’t seeing anyone at the time, then she would respect that decision. She was no exception to the rules just because Zuko was her boyfriend.
Besides, Zuko was probably fine. She didn’t need to check on him, she was just letting her worries get the best of her again -
Mai blinked upon hearing her name called. Blood rushed to her cheeks when she realized it was Katara who had spoken. “Yes?”
Katara gave her a warm smile, gesturing towards the plate in her hands. “Is that for Zuko?”
Mai hesitated, but nodded. “Tea,” she explained briefly. “I… tried to make it like Iroh does.” She took a step backwards. “But I can bring it back later, after more time has passed -”
Katara laughed, waving her hand dismissively. “Mai. Zuko would never forgive me if I didn’t let you in.” She tilted her head. “Besides. You know you’re always welcome.”
Mai’s grip on the plate slackened, and she found herself returning Katara’s smile.
Toph was fourth.
“Mai! Spar with me!”
Mai was startled by the sudden interruption, though years of practice prevented her from showing it. “Why?” She’d never been the earthbender’s go-to partner before.
“Because knives are made of metal,” Toph said, as if it should have been obvious. “I want to see if I can bend projectiles mid-air. Or at least better detect the path they’ll follow so I can earthbend a wall to block them.”
Mai raised an eyebrow. “And why would I agree to let you bend my knives?”
Toph grinned at her. “Who said anything about using yours?”
Mai’s eyes widened as Toph procured a large box from behind her back.
“We’ll practice with these. Don’t ask where I got them.”
Mai accepted the box from Toph, unable to stop the sharp gasp that escaped her lips as she admired the assortment of blades. “Alright,” she finally said, picking out a set of steel kunai. “I’ll spar with you. On one condition.”
Mai spun one of the knives around her index finger. “Let me keep some of these when we’re done.”
Toph burst out laughing. “Oh, I knew I’d like you.” She smirked at Mai. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Suki was last.
They’d run into each other. Literally. Mai spilled all the papers she’d been holding, and Suki had immediately apologized before offering to help her sort back through them. She’d almost turned the girl down, but…
“I haven’t seen you much,” Mai commented as they were putting the documents into piles based on their contents. “Compared to the rest of Zuko’s friends, I mean.”
Suki shrugged. “I’ve been spending most of my time with Sokka and the Kyoshi warriors. We’re thinking about heading back home soon.”
Mai nodded. She placed a document about the differences between crowning a Fire Lord and a Fire Lady in its appropriate stack. She hesitated, then asked, “Does… Do you know if Ty Lee plans to go with you?”
Suki blew air out her lips. “I’m not sure. Sometimes I think she wants nothing more than to get out of the Fire Nation, but there are other days where… where I don’t think she can imagine leaving you and Zuko behind.”
Mai’s heart seized in her chest. Spirits, she needed to talk to her friend. New responsibilities after the war had kept them apart more days of the week than Mai liked. “I see.”
Suki offered her a sympathetic smile. “Sorry I can’t be more specific. I think I just” - she shook her head - “I don’t know Ty Lee well enough yet to read her and her feelings. The other girls had a chance to connect with her in prison, but I’d already escaped the Boiling Rock and was on the run with Sokka at that point, so I just… don’t have the same level of experience with her yet.”
Mai clenched the scroll in her hand so tightly she was half-concerned she’d tear a hole through it. “Speaking of prisons…” She licked her lips, her mouth having suddenly gone dry. “I… I wanted to apologize,” she continued after a momentary pause. Mai didn’t like how her voice had dropped close to a whisper.
Suki tilted her head in confusion, though there was a keen recognition in her eyes that made Mai wonder if she was merely feigning puzzlement. “What do you mean?”
“I attacked you and your - your kinswomen. When you were protecting Appa.” Mai smoothed the scroll across the table before placing it in its appropriate stack. She didn’t dare meet the warrior’s eyes. “We got you arrested and sent to the Boiling Rock. And - I know an apology doesn’t make up for that, but…” She forced herself to look upwards. There was no bitterness, no resentment in Suki’s gaze. It was kinder than she deserved. “I’m sorry. I don’t deserve or expect your forgiveness, but - I’m sorry.”
Mai had hurt Suki the most among Zuko’s new friends. There was no changing that. And she knew she would never be able to make up for the months in isolation the girl had endured, either, no matter what she did. No matter how much she wanted to. Wished she could.
Mai didn’t blame her for staying silent.
Then Suki sighed, unfurling the paper in her hands. “I had mixed feelings about you. For a long time.” She skimmed something on the scroll before placing it aside. “On the one hand, you put me in prison. On the other…” She gave Mai a tentative smile. “You freed me from it.”
Mai’s heart skipped a beat. “That doesn’t make it fair -”
Suki laughed, cutting her off. “At this point, I don’t think ‘fair’ exists. Not after what all of us have been through.” She tucked her hair behind her ear. “But like I said. I had mixed feelings about you.” She gave Mai a soft smile. “I know how Sokka thinks you’re the funniest person to walk the Earth since his father. How Katara lets you visit Zuko after their healing sessions, even though she’s probably not supposed to. And spirits, Mai, the way Zuko looks at you…” She shook her head, winking at her. “You won my friends over a long time ago. It was only a matter of time before you won me over, too.”
An unfamiliar warmth settled in Mai’s chest, and a tentative smile inched onto her lips. “Thank you.”
Suki waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t mention it. And with you around, at least I won’t be the only sane person in our group anymore.”
Mai snorted, recalling an earlier incident of Sokka daring Zuko to eat raw tart batter while Toph egged them on. ‘Egged’ in two ways - both very different, but both equally frustrating. “Will that really make much of a difference?”
Suki snickered. “Maybe not for them, but…” She handed Mai a scroll to be placed on a stack too far for her to reach. “I think I’ll appreciate the company.”
Mai accepted the paper, and she smiled at Suki. “I think I will, too.” She placed the smoothed-out scroll in its appropriate pile. “Care to join me for a game of Pai Sho later?”
“Oh, count me in! That sounds like a great cooldown.”
Well… Mai wouldn’t describe Pai Sho in exactly that fashion. But she figured Suki would learn that on her own time, and chose not to comment. “I look forward to it.”
That night, Mai slipped into Zuko’s bedchambers under the cover of darkness, as she’d been inclined to do ever since his return to the Fire Nation. Zuko’s eyes lit up upon seeing her, and he moved to make room for her beside him on his bed. She sat down, and rolled her eyes but didn’t protest as Zuko wrapped his arms around her waist to pull her into his lap.
“Did you have a good day?” he asked, nuzzling his face into the back of her neck. He asked her the same question every night, and every night she told him the same answer - no. Then she’d gripe about whatever little thing had irked her over the course of the day. It was foolish, yet cathartic, and she knew Zuko didn’t mind. He probably found it entertaining.
“You know what?” Mai mused, thinking back to the mixture of glee and exasperation that had crossed Suki’s face numerous times during their earlier Pai Sho game. “I think I did.”
Zuko raised an eyebrow. “Wow. What happened?”
Mai shrugged. Five faces floated through her mind, all people she’d grown to care for over the past few weeks. People who’d grown to care for her in return. “Nothing special. Just… spent a little time with some new friends.”
Zuko chuckled, and she had a feeling he knew exactly the people she was referring to. “I’m glad to hear it.” He pressed a kiss to the nape of her neck. “Don’t kill me, but…” She didn’t need to turn around to know he was smirking. “I told you they’d come around.”
Mai groaned. “Oh, shut up.”
She sighed, turning around so she could properly face her boyfriend. “I guess I don’t have a choice, do I?”
(Mai made sure to silence him before he could answer.)