Zuko woke up shortly after dawn, not much more rested than he'd been when he fell asleep. He'd probably only slept a few hours, to be honest. He paused, took a moment to feel how much it sucked, and then rolled out of bed anyway. He threw some clothes on and hurried back down the hall to the sitting room.
Uncle was sitting there, awake already - or still? - with some papers on the table as well as a faintly steaming pot of probably tea.
"I agree with Katara."
"I'm sorry, what, Uncle?"
"You need to leave the city."
Zuko plopped down across from him, letting the weight of yesterday and the whole past week drag him down. He grabbed the cup of tea Uncle had set for him, draining the whole cup in one go. "Talk, Uncle."
"Nephew, your sister is coming to the city if not already here. If there is anything kind about the world, you will not meet. After all, she will be a guest of the palace, and you are working as a firefighter."
"It won't go like that."
Uncle nodded. "Agreed. So you must leave, now, before you call down more of the Fire Nation army on Ba Sing Se when all we have planned requires taking the city back." Uncle pushed the papers forward. "I have taken the liberty of preparing you the necessary papers to leave. If you go quickly and quietly, you and Katara can get out of the city by noon and well on your way to meeting up with the Avatar. He will need your help, at least for a time. Plus, it will put you in a position to more freely act, should you chose to do so, in our interests."
"What about my job?"
"Good of you to think of it. I have some soup prepared. I will simply visit Madam Hwan, and the fire chief if he is home, and share how my nephew received some late night visitors, and left with them. It will be understood."
Zuko paused, hand reaching for the documents. "Is this where you become my general, my spymaster, instead of my uncle?"
Uncle smiled, a little sad, a little proud. "I hope to always be your uncle, Zuko, and will always think of you as my nephew first. And, do not forget, a Crown Prince exiled and presumed dead still outranks a general, also presumed dead."
"You have a strange way of- Uncle! Stop meddling!"
"Who's meddling?" Katara asked from the doorway.
"Lee and Sekaze Emmir?"
The young couple hesitantly stepped forward. Lin could guess why. Her many years checking the papers of those coming and going from Ba Sing Se gave her a nose for such things. Both refugees, clearly, here from before walls "came down" and likely not contributing much to the city, but hey, that wasn't her paygrade. Nah, it was the everyday riffraff trying to pass through, that was her business.
Per the papers, they barely had a decade in the city between them, which made sense. He was scarred something fierce, like a fist of fire in his face, and boy that had to be half of what had him all puffed up like if he was bigger the problem would go away. As if the guards around couldn't knock him over with a feather. Uneducated commoner. The other half was probably his skittish wife of barely a year. Simple dress on both of them, common green, handmade and mended in a few places, but the girl had skill. And she was keeping back, honorable, not interfering beyond her place. Hmpf. Sometimes the riffraff were better at their customs than some of the idiot youngsters she'd seen running about.
She looked back and forth between the papers and the couple, noted the slight bump in Sekaze's waistline, nodded internally. "On your way out west are you? Back to the colonies?"
Sekaze leaned forward, hand twitching before she rocked back.
Lee replied, "Yes, uh, well, ma'am, we've been married a year, now, and we can't get her folks to move closer, and the boss was kind off to give me the leave-"
Lin held up a hand to cut him off. "Yes, yes, you're a good son-in-law, securing the familial visiting traditions even from far away. You're just lucky you didn't get married four years ago. If it wasn't for the recent, uh, change in management, I wouldn't be able to approve such a westward trip. It would've had to go through the palace." Both of them paled, and Lin did take some satisfaction in that. "But, lucky for you, I can now do this."
She stamped her approval on both sets of papers. "Have a good visit." She eyed Sekaze. "Pour out your portion of the anniversary sake for me, will you? I hear Lin is a very popular baby name these days." As they flushed, looking at each other like shy schoolchildren, she tried not to snarl. "Go on, take your papers. And hold hands, for Oma's sake. You still count as newlyweds for a few weeks yet."
Lee shaped a respectful bow. "We will not forget your kindness." They grabbed each other's hand as if by instinct and hurried towards the ferry with their approved papers.
Nice couple. Very proper. A bright spot to her day, she thought, turning to the next set of riffraff.
"Your uncle knows very talented people," Katara whispered, practically wrapped around his arm to whisper in Zuko's ear.
"I'm sure he's had my set for a while. Whipping up yours and making some edits probably didn't take long."
She nudged him, gently admonishing. "Let me compliment your family."
Zuko turned slightly, holding her hand onto his arm. Her hand tightened slightly, pulling her a little closer. He smiled and leaned in close to whisper conspiratorially, "you know, Ozai and Azula are technically part of my family, right?"
"Well," she nudged him, playfully, "Ozai did make something good."
Mai glowered passively as she patrolled the docks, scanning over the faces milling about, waiting for ferries or fishing boats or whatever. She sighed internally, keeping her face blank. It was the one shield she had between her and the world, who didn't care. Didn't give a shit. So it couldn't make her care.
There'd been some infiltration or something, something that Azula had arrived just moments after and probably figured it all out, and now everyone had to scramble around to try and catch up. Most likely, Azula already had the snare laid, and her prey would wander into it no matter what everyone else did. Azula just got to enjoy watching everyone else be less intelligent that her. In this case, she'd scattered her allies like Pai Sho tiles, with Ty Lee inspecting one of the gates. Mai was pretty sure Azula would appear wherever the trap sprung. She was lucky that way.
Mai's eyes caught on a couple huddled together, chatting about something in a whispered, intimate conversation. He was slightly taller than her, curling gently around her silhouette. They were talking about something serious, but making each other laugh and chuckle throughout.
Jealousy stabbed through her like a hot knife before she could grab hold of her emotions. She turned away, sleeves billowing slightly in the effort.
The Dai Li agent behind her raised an eyebrow questioningly, but accepted the shake of her head. His eyes turned back to the rooftops, and Mai stared at the boardwalk below them as she wrestled with her anger at people who did not know who she was.
It wasn't their fault her boyfriend was dead, or, if alive, completely cut off from any aid, so likely about to die. It wasn't their fault they'd been idiot teens who didn't know anything about relationships when they'd been separated. Not that Mai knew anything now, having been sequestered with her parents since Zuko was banished and then sucked into the wake of Azula's quest to take on the Avatar herself. She'd been traveling since, and she'd seen so much of the world.
Not that she'd liked any of it. Or would admit if she had.
Deciding to face her weakness, she turned back to the couple, who'd pulled slightly apart. Her eyes narrowed as she stared. They weren't standing as close as she'd expect, having watched couples before across the various nations. Their closeness seemed to have been born of the necessity to talk, and now they stood in a comfortable, trusting distance - but not touching. They continued to chat, aimlessly, perhaps, as the ferry started to pull in.
The woman pulled at her clothes, and the slight bulge of her middle did not move like fat. It moved like stuffing, like something tucked to add volume, the slightest disguise to shift eyes away.
Maybe she yelled it. Maybe the Dai Li did. The end result was the same - the couple bolted, and they sprung into pursuit.
Her knives were flying before she'd even really decided to, finding the moments by where misses led to knives clattering off walls and not into innocent flesh. This, this was the kind of moment she'd admit to liking - heart thumping but she was good at this sort of thing. She was following Azula's directions, and she'd succeed. It didn't matter how well-trained the spies ahead of them were, leaping out of the way of both her knives and the attacks from the Dai Li. Azula had all the luck, the skill, and she attracted those gifted almost as much as her. That tended to tip the scales.
So when, breaking out of the crowds at the dock to a more open space - one closer to freedom though she, who'd just arrived late the night before, couldn't have known that - Mai threw one of her lighter knives, deliberately ricocheting it off the ground not to maim but merely distract for the second knife she had waiting to fly, she expected a stumble or start.
She did not expect the man to turn on his heel like he'd heard the knife hitting the ground and knew what would follow. He spun through his turn, hand slightly shimmering as he bat the knife away, and spun back to keep running with his partner.
She hurled another knife straight at center mass.
His partner slowed, turning to face them, as if she'd sensed the tides shifting from flight to fight. Mai recognized her, and the waterskin that had slipped out from its hiding place as body fat amongst the water-witch's clothing. And as the next knife was leaving one hand, Mai threw up her other hand to command the Dai Li to stop, to wait on her signal and watch.
Zuko turned without effort and hit away yet another knife, stopping this time when he faced her.
Everything froze, it felt like.
Zuko smiled, weary and it didn't reach his eyes. If he didn't have his hands up, ready to throw fire, he would probably have one hand behind his neck; Mai was certain. "So, how have you been?"
"You're dead. Azula told me you were dead."
"Azula always lies."
"Three years! And you're closer than ever to making her lies truth. You barely wrote to me at all before to decided to die or, I guess, fall in with the Avatar's little band. What are you thinking? You're betraying us?!"
He looked at her, really saw her, saw the inches she'd gained in height and the angles sharpened where baby fat had left her face. "You know, Mai, I could swear that's almost the most emotion you've ever shown all at once since you befriended Azula." A knife whistled harmlessly past his ear, but he didn't flinch. "I couldn't do it anymore, Mai. My father will never love me-" It was her turn to repress a flinch as the Dai Li audibly sucked in breath. "-and I know that. I've accepted it. I will not accept what he's done. You know this is not what's best for our nation. You know it."
"I know you're speaking treason," she snapped back. "Once Azula's confirmed as heir, you'll have worked against line of Sozin, Zuko. Nothing can bring you back from that."
"She hasn't been confirmed?" Zuko's gaze was razor focused, and Mai cursed her slip up, deliberately relaxing her shoulders to hide it.
"The Fire Sages wouldn't do it. Said there was some obstacle. I guess we should've known it was you."
"Yes," purred a voice stepping onto the docks. "My brother does have a way with obstacles, doesn't he? Too stubborn to lay down and die like a loyal citizen of the Fire Lord. Have you been hiding here, working secretly all this time? Or did you unluckily roll in recently with the Avatar's pet waterbender?"
Katara's - ah, yes, Mai did remember her now - focus snapped to the new - biggest - threat. "I know your dad would betray you in a heartbeat, too, if you disappointed him. So where does that leave us, on the sliding scale of embarrassment?"
"Oh please, like a peasant could understand the complicated machinations of an imperial throne."
"Perhaps not, but I do know family. Your father, the younger child, never confirmed as heir still took the throne? And yet you are not confirmed heir despite years of your brother being assumed dead. Whether the Fire Sages complained or not, you know your father could bend them to his will - if he cared."
Azula's eyes narrowed. "I see, trying to get under my skin. Well, let me tell you what no one else got to hear because my grandfather died before his order could be carried out, so it didn't matter anymore and my father was Fire Lord." Azula smirked, because Zuko tensed like a man at with a whole army aiming at him. Mai looked to her princess in dawning horror. "See, my father struck a deal with Fire Lord Azulon when Lu Ten died. My father would be heir to throne, as long as he killed Zuko."
No, whispered Mai's suddenly aching heart. Azula always lies-
The princess stabbed two fingers forward, lightning flying towards Zuko's heart.
-unless the truth is worse.
Waves rose up from the docks, stabbing through gaps in the planks as a wall of ice that shattered upon the lightning's strike. But the wall had done its job - for when it exploded apart, another wave was subsiding into the sea, and Katara and Zuko were gone.
"Find them," Azula ordered, a single strand of hair out of place but otherwise unruffled. She looked at Mai. "Did you enjoy reuniting with your boyfriend?"
"He's not my boyfriend," Mai replied, emotionless as ever with them all locked back down dark and deep inside her heart where they could not be used against her. With a bow to her princess, she took off down the docks, following the Dai Li, for what else could she do?