A/N: Part one of two.
18 - Part One: Caged
There was just something about the walls that reminded Mai of a cage.
The ivory paint, the gold panels, the large hanging portraits of previous Fire Lord's and their families. Every time she strolled through the long corridors of the royal palace she couldn't help but feel as though she were choking, gasping for air—which explained why she was leaning over the railing of her chamber balcony, eyes closed and letting the warm air heat her face. These reasons didn't, however, explain to her chamber maid, who was probably alarmed by Mai's sudden sprinting through the halls.
"Lady Mai, are you alright?" Anya called. Her voice made it clear she was trying to find the line between being concerned and obtrusive.
"Fine," Mai breathed, eyes still closed. "Just needed some air."
"Shall I set the table for tea?"
"That won't be necessary." How many times did she have to tell Zuko and everyone else in this palace that she hated tea? Always hated it—still hated it.
"A letter arrived for you, my lady," said Anya, shuffling forward.
Mai turned around to face her, arm stretched out for the piece of manila parchment. She took another deep breath of air and went into her bed chamber, clutching the small letter in her pale fingers. "Thanks. You're dismissed."
Anya bowed her curly little head, her pale skin looking as translucent as ever, and exited the chamber. Servants were servants, but if Mai cared to admit it, she almost regretted her tone. Anya was the one servant she might actually like.
Shrugging it off, Mai unrolled the piece of parchment, and smiled just a little when she recognized the familiar curly writing:
Would you believe I am writing to you from high in the mountains? We are touring the countryside of the Earth Kingdom and you would not believe how gorgeous it is! I am learning so much from the Kyoshi Warriors. They even asked me to teach them some circus tricks! They want to incorporate my moves into their style of fighting.
You haven't written to me in a while. Is everything okay? I miss you. I met a boy a few days ago. Well, I have met many boys, but this one is so cute and sweet! I think I like him more than the rest. How is Zuko? Promise me you will come and visit me soon. Do you promise?
Sending hugs your way,
Mai sighed. The letter was as random and bubbly as Ty Lee herself, but Mai was happy for her friend. Despite her bright personality, she was an excellent fighter. It was a good thing she was continuing her training.
Mai found her fingers itching toward her robes, only just then remembering she wasn't carrying her knives. She didn't really need them in the palace—not with so many guards around. She had told Zuko to lighten up on the security, but he wouldn't hear of it. Despite the war ending over three months ago, he was still a little paranoid about infiltration. Considering how she herself had infiltrated the Earth Kingdom with Azula and Ty Lee, Mai supposed she couldn't blame him.
Azula. Thinking of her friend made her chest tighten, her throat close up. Mai visited Azula once a week, but what remained of the princess was a shadow of the girl Mai grew up with. Something had broken Azula and Mai could hardly stand it. She had chosen Zuko that day at the prison, and sometimes, despite herself, she wondered if she made the right choice. She knew she did, but there was that nagging in the back of her mind. Would Azula still have wound up in a padded cell if she hadn't abandoned her friend?
It's not your fault, Zuko had said. But he wasn't there. He was the one that was gone for three years, chasing the Avatar across the world. He wasn't the one who pulled her out of the black hole she called her life. Her friend had. Her twisted, broken friend.
Mai crumpled up the letter and threw it to the ground, slumping into a soft armchair. Her head dropped to her hand as the door pushed open. Zuko strolled in, fists clenched and looking to be in a sour mood. He had been this way for a while now. He spent most of his days tied up in the war room or in his study—pouring over maps, signing treaties and documents, talking with generals and leaders. Some nights he didn't even come to bed.
It had only been three months, but Mai could feel them drifting apart. And she wasn't sure how to fix it.
"What is it?" Mai asked.
"General Lang still hasn't updated me on his progress." Zuko slipped out of his robe and sat in the opposite chair. Was Mai supposed to know what that meant?
She shrugged and Zuko glared at her. "You could at least pretend to care," he said.
"How can I care when I have no idea what you're talking about? His progress on what?"
"Re-establishing the lower districts. Have you seen how impoverished it is?"
She hadn't. She hadn't seen much of anything in the Fire Nation except the walls of her luxurious home. Sit still, Mai. Be quiet, Mai. Hold your chin up, Mai.
"No," she said.
"Well you should." He kicked off his boots, looking exhausted. His hair was a mess.
Mai shrugged again. What good would it do her? It wasn't like she could help with that.
Zuko sighed and finally looked at her. His mouth softened, but his eyes were still a little hard from the stress. "Do you…do you want to go into the city for dinner tonight?"
"Sure." Mai tried to smile, but it felt strained. She felt strained.
"I'm leaving for the Southern Water tribe in two days to meet with Aang and the others."
Ah. That explained the dinner. Usually they ate in the dining hall, if they shared a meal at all. But if Zuko was planning on leaving soon, he'd try to do something nice. "Okay," she said. Mai was used to this. When he wasn't fulfilling his Fire Lord duties here, he was fulfilling them somewhere else.
"You can come too, you know," he said softly.
She shrugged—she was always shrugging, wasn't she? Always so indifferent. Maybe she really was blah. "And do what?" she questioned. "I don't know things about wars or treaties or…whatever it is you talk about."
"They're my friends, Mai. We do more than talk about politics."
Yes, they're your friends, she thought. Mai had two friends—one was locked away and the other was across the sea.
"You go on," she said, like she always did. "I'll be waiting when you get back."
It was the first time, she realized with some surprise, she wasn't sure if she would be.
A/N: This was inspired by how unsatisfied I was with Mai's ending. So I wanted to write something else. :)