Zuko had carried me back to the earth kingdom palace where Azula was staying. I drifted in and out of consciousness the whole way there, but was fairly alert once we got into the palace. Two other girls that were dressed the same as Azula were there, one girl with brown hair that was braided, and the other with black hair, half of it up in two buns on either side of her head. Both girls had bangs, the girl with brown hair had her bangs swept to the side, and the other with bangs straight across her forehead partly covering her eyebrows.
The girl with black hair stood up immediately when we came in, “Zuko,” I couldn’t tell if she was happy to see him or not, she didn’t express much emotion. Her eyes shifted down to me and narrowed, “Who is she?”
I met eyes with Zuko and said, “I think I’m okay now, you can put me down.”
“Are you sure?” he asked me, searching my face. His was fairly close to mine, but I didn’t mind.
I nodded in response, and he gently placed my feet down on the floor. He still supported my upper half as I regained my balance. Once I figured out I was able to stand, I smiled at him gratefully and stepped to the side so that I was standing next to him instead of in front of him. He smiled softly back at me, until the girl with black hair’s voice pierced through the air.
“Um hello? I asked you a question.”
Zuko’s smile dropped and we both looked at her. She had her arms crossed and looked angry.
I cleared my throat, “Hi, I’m Mara,” I smiled the best I could muster.
The girl rolled her eyes with a huff, but the other girl with brown hair smiled back at me, “Hi! I’m Ty Lee.”
Her reaction made me feel a bit better about the situation, what was that other girl’s problem?
I looked up at Zuko with a questioning look. He saw my look and quickly responded, “That’s Mai.”
I nodded and looked down at the ground. In an instant Ty Lee was right in front of me. I tried not to react too much, but my eyes widened in surprise. She leaned in and said quietly, “Don’t mind her too much, she’s like that with everyone.”
“Thanks for letting me know,” I put on a small smile.
Zuko put a hand on the small of my back and said, “You should get some rest. I’ll help you to the room.”
I nodded and Ty Lee stepped to the side out of my way. I took a couple of steps and then one of my knees gave out, making me lose my balance. Zuko caught me immediately, and we both laughed lightly as he wrapped his arm around me. This reminded me of when we were traveling together, he would always tease me about my balance issues. I could feel Mai’s eyes burning into us as we walked away.
He led me to a room in the palace that had a large bed inside of it, “This looks like a good spot, what do you think?”
I looked around the room, speechless. “This is perfect,” I breathed.
Zuko chuckled and lifted me onto the bed with one smooth movement. He sat down on the edge next to me, and looked into my eyes. “I’m glad you’re okay, Mara.”
I smiled, “Me too. It’s all thanks to you.”
He swallowed, and then continued, “So, what happened?”
I looked away from his eyes and thought for a moment, trying to sort through everything. “Well, I went to see Pao at his shop, I took a carriage, but when I went back to it, it was gone. Then Azula showed up behind me, and we fought. I pretty much won, but then those creepy Dai Li guys showed up and put those rocks on my wrists so I couldn’t do anything. They took me to that underground place and kept me in a cave for a while, and then Azula came in and told them to bring me. They took me to that cavern we were in and put me down on the ground, attaching the rock on my wrist to the rock on the ground so I couldn’t move,” I shook my head, thinking of not being able to do anything but watch.
Zuko took my hands in his, looking down at the sores on my wrists that were still very prominent and painful. “Who did this to you? Was it my sister?” his voice was angry, but I knew it wasn’t towards me.
I shook my head in response, “No, she didn’t do it. It was one of the Dai Li guys, each time I would try to get out of the bindings during the fight in the cavern, they would tighten. I think it was the same one that put the rocks over my mouth too.”
Zuko’s jaw clenched, and I saw the fire in his eyes flare, “I will find the one who did this to you, and I will end him.”
“Zuko, you don’t have to do that,” I started, shifting on the bed.
“Yes, I do,” he said before I could continue. “It’s my fault that this happened. So, I am going to make it right.”
I sighed quietly, “How do you expect to do that?”
He hung his head, “I-I don’t know. I’ll figure it out. But one thing that I do know is that I am not letting anyone else hurt you again. I’m going to bring you back home with me so that I can keep you safe. Since the Avatar is...” he stopped and swallowed, “Nowhere is going to be safe from the fire nation now.”
“I... I don’t think I would be accepted in the fire nation,” I looked down at my lap, “I am not one of them, they won’t want me there.”
Zuko lifted my chin up so that I was looking at him, “I don’t care. They will have to deal with it, because you’re going to be with me.” He sounded so sure that it was going to work, but I had my doubts.
I nodded at him, and he released my chin. Did he mean that he was going to keep me at the palace with him? That would be even worse, people would definitely not like that. But, I guess if they didn’t know where I was from, it wouldn’t be as bad. Maybe that’s what he had in mind.
“I want you to get some rest. I’m going to go talk to my sister.”
He helped me under the blanket and smiled down at me. I smiled back at him and said, “Don’t get yourself into too much trouble, okay?”
He chuckled softly, “No promises.”
It didn’t take long before I drifted off to sleep. I had an exhausting day, fighting Azula, being trapped and dragged around by the Dai Li, having to watch Zuko fight without being able to help. Watching the Avatar die... I know that Zuko had a hard day too, having to choose like that. But somehow, he seemed fine. Was he used to crazy things like this happening? Or maybe he’s just good at hiding it.
I woke up to voices outside the main door to the room Zuko had left me in. I could barely make it out, but it sounded like Zuko talking to someone. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and cautiously stood up, making sure I had my balance back. Once I was sure that I would be okay, I slowly crept over to the door and stood at the side.
“I don’t care what you say, it is my decision and she is coming with us,” it was definitely Zuko. He sounded frustrated; he had the same tone in his voice that he gets when he argues with his uncle. I wonder where Iroh is right now, I hope he is doing okay.
“Zuzu,” it was Azula. My heart skipped when I heard her voice. She was talking in a mocking tone. “We both know your little water girl does not belong at the palace. Father would never allow it,” she laughed coldly.
I clenched my jaw but continued listening. “Father doesn’t have to know,” Zuko snapped. Would Zuko really risk lying to his father for me? I figured that they didn’t have the best relationship, but wouldn’t he eventually find out?
“Hmph, you wouldn’t be able to keep her a secret for very long, he knows everything that happens in the palace,” she sneered.
For once, I agreed with Azula. It would be very difficult to keep my presence secret from the Fire Lord, I would have to stay hidden the entire time.
Zuko scoffed, and I could basically see him roll his eyes. “That is not what I meant,” his annoyance showed clearly through his voice, “What I meant was that father doesn’t have to know where she is from.”
I now remembered the conversation we had before I passed out, that must have been what Zuko was planning. Pretend that I am from a fire nation colony so that the others would be more accepting. I don’t know if I would be able to fool Ty Lee or... that other girl, what was her name? Oh right, Mai – I don’t know if I would be able to fool them into believing that I am fire nation. If they hang around us too much they would catch on.
I wasn’t paying attention to what was said next, I was too immersed in my thoughts. But the next thing I knew the door was opening, and Zuko stepped through. His eyes fell on the bed, and his stance changed once he realized I wasn’t there. I cleared my throat quietly, and he spun around quickly. I hope I didn’t scare him.
I blushed and looked down at the ground.
Zuko hesitated, but then closed the door and stepped closer to me. “How much of that did you hear?” he asked, I could still hear annoyance and frustration in his voice.
“Not much, just the part about your father,” I said sheepishly, not sure how he would react to me eavesdropping on his conversation.
Zuko led me over to the bed and we both sat down. I pulled my legs up and tucked them under me.
Finally, Zuko sighed, “I’m worried that Azula will not keep the secret. But all we can do is wait and see what happens.”
I nodded, I figured as much. “I’m sorry,” I said quietly looking down at my lap.
Zuko shifted, “Why are you sorry?”
“Because my presence makes everything more difficult... and because I was listening to your conversation.”
Zuko laughed under his breath, “Your presence is worth the extra work.”
I looked up quickly, did he actually say that? Our eyes met and we both blushed. Was that his way of telling me that he enjoys my company? I smiled at the thought of that.
“But,” Zuko continued, his voice more stern than before. “Don’t listen to my conversations again unless I tell you to.”
I swallowed and nodded.