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MAIKO MONTH 2014
DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS: THE FOURTH DAY

22 - Weakness

Neither of the people who were Zuko slept well that night: not the Prince in Exile who loathed the land he was forced to wander, nor the purposeless Hero who saw home as the far more distressing place. The Prince in Exile had tossed and turned all night, and the Hero politely asked if the other couldn't keep still long enough for some people to get to sleep, thank you, but the Prince in Exile said that no, he couldn't keep still, but to feel free to try the floor if sleep was so important. Of course, the Hero hadn't gotten down on the floor, partly out of contrary stubbornness but mostly because he was the same person as the rude Prince and so they were forced to share a bed no matter how they felt about it, and thus it was almost a relief for both of Zuko when the morning finally came and sleep stopped being a social obligation.

He had also been uneasy about finding the door to his suite left wide open when he finally returned to it last night. He was sure that he had locked it before going out.

Zuko went through his usual wake-up routine (greet the sun with a short Firebending exercise, put on something that wasn't green, make a token attempt to do something with hair, snarl a bit, and finally use the little Fire Prince's room) and then headed out to the morning briefing. He hoped something was said there that simultaneously reminded him why he hated Ba Sing Se but also endeared him into wanting to stay and rule over it.

He had a feeling the odds were low on that one.

To Zuko's surprise, when he arrived in Azula's office, she was the only one there. Mai was not present, nor Mai's Mother. Ty Lee wasn't running in behind Zuko saying something about both not being late and it also not being her fault that she was late. And there was no Firebender captain assuring the group that public executions was part of a standard humane program for improving morale in conquered foreign populaces. It was just Azula, writing something at her desk. "Isn't there a briefing this morning?"

Azula looked up, and Zuko almost took a step back. She had that Look in her eyes, the Look that said her mind was running like a komodo rhino with its tail on fire (a common prank back in the Fire Nation) and the person she was looking at was a major part of the plans she was planning. It was a Look that was as good as a warning to run, not walk, as far away as possible. Zuko neither ran nor walked away, and so was there to hear Azula say, "No, the briefing was canceled. I have an urgent matter to which I must attend."

"Oh. Uh, is there a way for me to help?"

"Actually, there is. You know Mai's mother, right?"

Zuko considered admitting that he still hadn't remembered the woman's name, but decided that discretion was the better part of not looking like an idiot, and wound up simply nodding.

"Good. Please find her and inform her that I require her assistance."

"That's all?"

Azula rolled her eyes and went back to her writing. "Do that much right, Zuzu, and we'll discuss giving you more responsibility. Perhaps next time I'll let you bring me a snack."

Zuko gave her one of his own Looks, one that promised plenty of ill feelings and rude thoughts that would stop just short of actually picking a fight that he'd likely lose, and stomped away. He had a feeling this was just the start to another bad day.




Mai waited by the door to the suite she was sharing with her mother. She stood still for as long as she could before she began fidgeting, running her hands through her hair to make sure it was still shiny and untangled, tugging at her clothes to make sure there were no ugly wrinkles, and jingling her knives to make sure that nothing was out of place and in danger of stabbing anyone who she might bump against. She was on her seventh repetition of that cycle before the knock finally came at the door, and Mai lunged forward and opened it with a crash. "Zuko! What a pleasant surprise."

Zuko, still in mid-knock, stared at her for a moment before lowering his fist. "Um, good morning. Azula sent me to tell-"

"Mother," Mai yelled, "Zuko says that Azula needs to see you in her office right now to help her with an important and likely rewarding task."

Zuko blinked. "How did you know?"

Mai bit back a most unlady-like curse describing the bottoms of Fire Lord Sozin's feet. "You didn't say?"

"No."

"Must be a lucky guess then." Mai tried smiling, but it felt weird on her face and so she let it drop. "How are you doing?"

"Um, fine?" Zuko eyes were everywhere but on her. "I should go. I really need to get back to regular Firebending practice." He turned away-

"Wait!"

-and turned back to face her. "Yes?"

Mai stepped forward, and willed her face to show no sign of her nervousness. "I was serious, when I asked how you were doing. I was thinking about what you said at the zoo yesterday, and I realized that I probably seemed a little selfish."

Zuko's eyes widened. "No, it was okay. I- I was the one who was wrong, making you think I might- and then telling you like that-"

Mai held up a hand to stop his stumbling apology. "No, really. I told you I wanted to be your friend, and when you said that we wouldn't really have much more time together, I made it clear that I didn't even care to make the most of that time. So, I'm sorry. I really want to know how you're doing, after making a decision like that."

Zuko just looked at her for a long moment, and then let out a heavy sigh and left his shoulder slumped. "I thought I had figured out what I need to do, but... everything is still so... unsure. I used to think I wanted to go home, but now that I can, it doesn't seem right. So I figured I should stay here, but now that doesn't seem right, either. And it's like I'm changing faster than I can sense, so I don't even know who I am anymore. I think I feel one way about things, and then realize that I actually feel the complete opposite."

Mai couldn't help but smirk. "I don't suppose that was a reference to accepting my awkward and scary affections?"

Zuko's face went red where it wasn't burned. "Oh, uh, no, I was thinking about something else. I-"

"Don't worry about it. I was just teasing." Mai pushed the smirk away, and tried to put on a smile that she hoped looked sincere. "Is this the first time you felt like you were changing?"

Zuko took a moment to consider that. "No. I changed after- when I began my hunt for the Avatar. Now, it feels like I'm moving away from those changes, more with every day."

Mai marveled at what she was hearing. Not that Zuko was opening up to her- although that was special, too, because if he had a weakness, it was sharing things with other people- but because she felt completely comfortable being the person he was opening up to. If Mai had a weakness (and she was loathe to admit that she did) it was her inability to care about anyone. Yet she found now that she really wanted to hear Zuko reveal himself like this, and didn't have any trouble feeling sympathy for what he was sharing. "That sounds natural to me. You finally helped defeat the Avatar, so you can go back to the way things were. You really can go home. You don't need to be afraid of it."

Zuko shook his head. "I'm not becoming who I was. I don't even recognize who I'm becoming. I'm seeing things- all my experiences since I was banished, all the things around me- in ways that are new. I just- I don't recognize these thoughts."

On impulse, Mai reached out and grabbed Zuko's hand. "Show me."

"Wh- what?"

"Show me." She motioned to the nearest window, beyond which Ba Sing Se sprawled out into the horizon. "You lived in this city before Azula found you, right? Show me where you lived. Tell me how you felt, and how you feel now. I want to understand. As your friend."

A smile slowly blossomed on Zuko's face, and Mai felt her own smile growing more comfortable in turn. He said, "Okay. Let's go. Let me grab some things, and I'll meet you outside."

"Okay." Zuko walked off and Mai closed the door behind him, then she hissed, "Yes!" and threw a knife at the ceiling in celebration.

Then Tom-Tom startled Mai by popping up from behind a statue of some kind of overgrown rodent and squealing, "Yay, Mai win!"

He really was starting to take after Ty Lee, wasn't he? Mai walked over and gave him a quasi-affectionate pat on the head. "Big Sister Mai always wins, and don't you forget that."

Now, she just had to keep Zuko busy for three days so that Azula’s plan would have time to work. No problem.






23 - Give and Take

Zuko caught up with Mai just outside the main entrance to the Earth Palace. She was wearing a dress of various shades of green, with the darkest shade being reserved for a flowing cape buttoned around her neck. Her 'ox horn' buns were covered and tied with fabric the color of celadon ceramics, completing the 'Earth Kingdom' look. Zuko had to nod in appreciation. "You'll fit right in, out there."

Mai quirked an eyebrow. "You're telling me I'll look just like all the destitute criminals and refugees in the Lower Ring? Gee, thanks, Zuko. You sure know how to make a girl feel pretty."

Uh oh. Not even a minute into this outing, and he had already insulted her. He should apologize, and perhaps drop into a kowtow; or would it be more appropriate to make up for his stupidity with a gift? Wasn't that what boys did for girls they had insulted? Or was that just for boyfriends and girlfriends? Did that also apply to boys who weren't quite sure about the nature of their friendship with girls who wanted to move beyond friendship? Why couldn't he stop thinking in questions? What was wrong with him? How could he stop? Why couldn't he stop? What was the meaning of life? How many spirits could dance on the point of a jian sword? Argh? Make it stop?

Then Mai walked over and slapped his shoulder. "Relax, I was just kidding. Really, Zuko, if you want to be taken seriously, you're going to have to learn how to take a joke, as ironic as that sounds." She smiled, and it was the small, very nice smile she had shown earlier when this made this not-a-date appointment. Zuko very much liked that smile, especially because it appeared so rarely.

"Sorry," he eventually said. "I'm not used to this type of thing."

"Hanging out with a girl, or spending time with friends?"

"...yes?"

Mai gave him a look, but then brought The Smile back. "All right, here's our first ground rule: friends don't worry about chasing each other off with just one poorly-considered comment. At the very least, I'll give you the chance to apologize, and even tell you how if that's what you need. Sound fair?"

Zuko sighed with relief. "That would be great." He straightened his brown robes, and looped the sheath of his latest pair of twin dao blades around his back. "Let's go. I have a lot to show you."




Jin stayed as far back as she could from Zuko and Mai without losing sight of them. They walked idly through the Upper Ring in the direction of the train station, chatting quietly and paying no attention to the deadly, tenacious assassin following them. Or rather, Lee and Mai the Evil Destroyer (in the sense that she was evil and pushed people out of windows, not that she destroyed evil) walked along while Jin the Rebel Hero bravely tracked them.

She might have almost been killed when Mai pushed her out the window, but Jin had bounced back, although not literally because people didn't bounce when they fell from three stories up. Jin had made her way out of the topiary garden into which she had fallen and found some servant robes that more or less fit her, along with some helpful supplies like coins and mild painkillers. She had intended to sneak back up to Zuko's suite and then finally eliminate the spy who had used and abused Jin's- er, Ba Sing Se's hospitality, but before she could spring her ambush (or find the suite again), she spotted Zuko and Mai heading out of the palace on some kind of evil mission.

That was even better. The rebels who had given Jin this mission had been quite insistent that there was nothing better than to die for one's homeland, but Jin thought that some comparison shopping was in order, so she appreciated the opportunity to complete her assassination mission without getting caught in the heart of the enemy's stronghold, and then she could always die for her country later if it turned out to be the better option.

For now, she watched and waited, like a predator on the hunt.




Mai had complained about how crowded the train was, but Zuko was starting to realize that just because she was complaining didn't actually mean that she cared. Complaints just seemed to be her preferred method of communication. This was a language Zuko spoke fluently, so he developed a strategy of acknowledging her latest complaint (Earth Kingdom cities, domineering mothers, lack of appreciation for personal space, fire flakes made with too much grease, and so on), agreeing in some manner, and then retreating to let her either continue that line of thought or start with a new complaint.

At one point, Mai had sighed, smiled, and said, "You're a very easy person to talk to. Thank you."

Zuko couldn't help but grin at that, and only the fact that there was no room on the train kept him from jumping up and doing a little jig-like Firebending kata. He wished Uncle and Azula were there so that he could point to Mai and make them acknowledge that he really was capable of making a friend, so stick that in your chi-flow and light it up.

And in a way, the whole dynamic made sense. Mai was coming with him to the Lower Ring to hear about his own problems, so in the meantime he was listening to hers. Was this what the vaunted friendship was all about? Zuko didn't think it was too hard, now that he had figured it out. Of course, allowances had to be made for when one person's problems were bigger and more stressful than the other person's, but surely any rational person could deal with that, and Mai seemed refreshingly rational.

Eventually, the train arrived in the Lower Ring, and Zuko took Mai's hand and led her to see the lowest point of his entire life.




Jin couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Lee- er, Prince Zuko- was returning to the Lower Ring, the happy if slightly crime-ridden place from which he had launched his campaign of terror! What was he doing here, now? With increasing worry, she followed the evil couple as they made their way down the streets, heading unmistakably in the direction of the old neighborhood.

Clearly, Prince Zuko intended to destroy all the evidence that he was an evil spy, including all the people who knew his unfairly handsome face.

Jin had to act to save everyone she cared about! And she knew just what to do…




"You served people tea here?!" Mai sounded absolutely scandalized.

Zuko nodded, keeping the motion slight so that his hood didn't fall down and reveal his easily recognizable face to the other patrons. "It was the most humiliating experience of my entire journey. The customers were demanding and treated me like I should feel lucky that I had the chance to bring them their stupid tea." He glanced around at the people sipping their drinks, oblivious to the Prince of the Fire Nation who was nursing a jasmine in their midst. "But now, I think back and it just seems like a more simple time. I didn't have to worry about who I was, or if I really deserved to go home. I knew I deserved to get out of here, and knew I had to find the Avatar to do that."

He looked up at Mai. She was listening, her eyes focused on him, acting like what he was saying was the most important thing in the world.

He continued, "And then something happened- Uncle showed me something- and I gave up hope of ever getting back home. And it wasn't bad. I just focused on helping Uncle and trying to make the best of where I was, and it almost worked. It was like... being asleep and dreaming. The dream seemed nice, but then Azula found me and... woke me up. And I realized that it was just a dream and even the happiness I felt wasn't real. But now I can't find that same... contentment... again."

Mai reached out and put her hands on his. Her skin was cold, compared to the tea cup he had been cradling, but it was a soothing coolness, a relief from the intensity of the heat. "Zuko, you need to let yourself feel happy. Life is terrible and you're right to hate existence itself, but sometimes moments come along that aren't completely awful. Learning how to hate almost everything is part of growing up, and whether you stay here in Ba Sing Se or go home, you'll probably still hate your life. But you don't have to hate everything about your life. You can kind of like some bits, if you let yourself."

It was amazing. All of Uncle's advice, all of his wisdom, all his incomprehensible koans, had failed to give Zuko any relief or understanding, but this girl in front of him had just summed up a philosophy that finally made him see some sense in the world. He couldn't help but think she was wrong in accepting everything so passively, even though all of Zuko's actions had failed to actually improve his situation up to now. Still, it was possible that he might eventually figure out how to act for the better, someday, maybe. For now, though, one part of Mai's wisdom truly called to him. "I don't hate you."

She gave a little laugh. "I don't hate you, either."

And while their server had not yet presented the bill for the tea, the universe at that moment chose to balance its ledgers and found that this little moment had left Zuko rather deeply in debt.

The door of the tea shop burst open as if it had been kicked, and Jin of all people leaped in, pointed at him, and shouted, "It's Prince Zuko, come to destroy us all for the Fire Nation!" Hulking thugs of clear Lower Ring origin streamed into the tea shop around her, while she drew a knife of all things from her robe and threw it at Zuko's head.

He sat there dumbfounded while the blade sailed past him in a clear miss and clanged to the floor behind him.

He sat there dumbfounded while Mai stood up, drew a pair of her own knives from her sleeves, and mumbled something about this being the best date ever.

He sat there dumbfounded while all inferno broke loose around him in the tea shop.






24 - Hiding

It was overwhelming. Knives flew through the air, tea cups were smashed against tables and their jagged remains used as deadly weapons, thugs with swords attempted to chop away at anyone born in the Fire Nation but succeeded only in destroying every single piece of furniture in the tea shop, and in the middle of it all, Jin stood there staring at Zuko with accusing eyes. It was too much to process, a raging storm of violence that no umbrella of human resolve could stand against, even without the presence of treacherous crosswinds.

Deciding that enough was enough, Zuko punched a plume of fire into the space above him (being careful not to set the ceiling aflame) and bellowed, "STOP!!"

Everything came to a halt.

Zuko jumped up onto the nearest undamaged table and looked around at the crowd. He spotted Mai in the thick of it, frozen in the process of pinning someone's pants to the wall (while the man in question was still wearing his pants, thankfully), and she seemed unharmed. Reassured on that point, Zuko let his gaze travel over the assembled mob. "There's no need to attack us! We mean no harm to the city. I am Prince Zuko, son of the Fire Lord, and it is my intention to see that Ba Sing Se and its people are treated fairly. I will see to it that your homes are not destroyed. I will make sure that all peaceful citizens are allowed to go about their lives in safety. We will do nothing to impinge on your culture, but we will bring sanitation and order to the chaos created by the old, corrupt government. You have my word as a Prince, and as the future ruler of this city!"

Zuko hoped for cheering, but he would have settled for nods of approval and everyone putting their weapons away. However, one massive man with an axe raised his hand and said, "Hey, my home was already destroyed by one of your tanks trying to back up and smashing into my apartment."

An older man with a broken teacup in his hands said, "Your soldiers looted my store without so much as a by-your-leave!"

A woman with a black eye said, "I was trying to get home when one of the riots spilled out across my path, and your soldiers beat me up!"

A teenager in an apron said, "Your soldiers come in here all the time for tea and they never leave a tip!" (Zuko had to admit that as a former waiter himself, he found that last one particularly dishonorable.)

More shouts rose up with complaints about Fire Nation rule, and Zuko had to shoot out another plume of fire to restore the quiet. "I'm sorry for these incidents. I had not heard about these difficulties, but I will try to make reforms! You have my word of honor!"

The silence reigned for a brief moment, and then one woman called out, "Well, why didn't you know about any of this? What were you doing all this time?"

Zuko swallowed. "Um, worrying about my destiny and trying to sort out my love life." He was suddenly struck with the thought that perhaps hiding from everything going on in the city was not the best way to prepare himself for actually ruling Ba Sing Se. That was a good lesson, and he hoped he would survive to properly apply it.

Then Jin screeched, "Get him!" and the fighting broke out again. The table Zuko was standing on was yanked out from beneath him, but he twisted to land on his feet and came up drawing his twin dao from the scabbard on his back. He fought only for defense, deflecting and blocking blows from other weapons and striking with his fists and hand-guards when he had to knock someone back. He forced his way over to Mai, and their eyes met for a single moment before they fell into a rhythm together. Zuko had seen Mai fight, back before he was banished, and knew her strategies both when she battled alone and when she worked in partnership with someone like Ty Lee. Mai was dangerous with her knives in short range, but she was truly stunning when she could focus on the long range and throw her blades with superhuman precision.

Zuko took the role of her short-range defender, allowing Mai to shift her strategy to target enemies before they got close.

He divided his awareness between Mai and the crush of fighters immediately around them. When she spun, he ducked and orbited around her. When he noticed someone pushing in at her, he stabbed past the curve of her waist to discourage her attacker with the point of his sword and a burst of concussive flame shot from the sword itself, and then spun with his dao outstretched while she ducked and stepped to a position of relative safety. He didn't worry at all about her knives, which sometimes flew close enough to his own body that he could feel the wind of their passage against his skin, because he knew that she was far too good to accidentally hit him.

The battle ended when every armed enemy had been pinned by blades to a wall or the floor or even larger pieces of broken furniture, and Zuko came to a stop with one sword pointed at Jin, who was still standing unarmed after she had thrown her knife at him at the start of the battle.

Jin stared with eyes filled with such hatred that Zuko had to take a step back and move his gaze elsewhere. Unfortunately, that left his eyes resting on Pao, the tea-shop's owner, who was cringing from behind the front service counter. Zuko felt an absurd desire to make the man feel better, and said, "Um, s-sorry about this?"

Pao looked around at the wreckage of the little shop. "Young man, this is the second time you and your violent antics have wrecked my establishment. This is getting to be a bad habit!"

"Oh, uh... When I get back to the Palace, I'll have enough gold sent down to cover all the damages. And a little extra for the inconvenience."

Pao blinked. "Oh. Thank you. In that case, it was a pleasure to see you again, and we appreciate your business. Please come again. Tell your uncle I said hello!"

"Right," Zuko muttered as he grabbed Mai's hand and pulled her out of the teashop with him. He left Jin standing there, still glaring at him.

Zuko paused in the doorway when he saw what was waiting outside. There was a crowd gathered around the tea shop, and every single person was holding a weapon, ranging from well-maintained swords to loose cobblestones pried from the street. Zuko realized that Jin must have organized some backup, in case her first assault failed. That was surprisingly clever of her. He looked over at Mai to make sure she was ready for trouble, and was surprised to find her eyes all glassy, and her face flushed and sweaty. She was even panting for breath. "Are you okay?"

A smile flickered across her lips. "I didn't know you could fight so well with blades."

Zuko wasn't sure what that had to do with anything, but nodded anyway. "I taught myself while I was in exile."

"You taught yourself?" Mai's face went an even deeper shade of red, and she closed her eyes for a moment. "We should train together once we get out of this. Just the two of us alone. With our self-taught bladed weapons. Alone."

Zuko wasn't quite sure what she was getting at, mostly because he was ignoring the enthusiastic part of his brain that knew exactly what she was getting at and wholeheartedly approved. That part of his brain even had some creative ideas involving the dress code for the training sessions, but Zuko continued to pretend he wasn't listening to that part of his brain. "We'll talk about it later. You ready to move?"

"More than ready. Should we make for the nearest guard station?"

Zuko frowned. "I don't want to be rescued. Azula will never respect me if I can't handle myself in the real world."

Mai nodded. "Then we break clear of here and find some place to hide out and wait for things to cool off."

"Fine."

And with that, they were once again in motion. Mai flung out her hand in a wave that peppered the increasingly aggressive crowd with pointed bolts, while Zuko rushed in at the thinnest part of the enemy gathering and used a flurry of sword-swings to disperse a pair of men brandishing knives. Mai dashed right behind him, and together they plunged deeper into the Lower Ring, an irregular army chasing after them.




Half an hour and one desperate slapstick chase later, Mai was hiding with Zuko in a large barrel and hoping desperately that she didn't smell as funky as she felt.

Her rather embarrassing enthusiasm for the fight back at the tea shop had left her fairly sweaty, and between the warm weather, the running she had been doing, and now being stuffed into a close space where she couldn't avoid touching Zuko, she hadn't had a chance to cool off. Mai loathed sweating on general principle and did everything she could to avoid it, so being stuck in such a state threatened to ruin her otherwise fantastic day.

If Zuko noticed, he didn't say anything. An open plug in the lid of the barrel let in a shaft of sunlight that allowed them see each other, but Zuko didn't seem to notice. He was staring at the wall of the barrel as though he could will himself to peer through it.

Mai wiped some sweat from her face with the edge of her cape. "How long do you think we'll have to hide?"

Zuko shook his head. "Word travels quickly in these kinds of neighborhoods, and there are lots of dangerous people around here. We might have already lost them, or they might keep the search going all day. If nothing happens in an hour, we'll see if we can make a break for it."

Mai sighed. An hour crammed in here? Her clothes would be sticking to her by the time they got out. She hoped Zuko wouldn't be put off by the destruction of the feminine mystique her mother had taught her to cultivate. 'Proper ladies don't sweat,' Mother had always said, 'they trick a handsome and rich Firebender to diffuse their excess heat for them.' Unfortunately, Zuko wasn't offering, and it wouldn't have had anywhere to go in the barrel, anyway.

In fact, Zuko seemed lost in his own headspace. Mai shifted a bit to let the blood properly flow to her legs, and turned to face him. "Are you okay? As long as we're stuck here, we might as well talk about what we came down her for."

Zuko closed his eyes and shook his head. "It's all wrong. I knew the types of things that happened in colonies, but I didn't let myself think that it would happen here, too. No wonder they all want to kill me."

"They?" Mai couldn't keep the coldness out of her voice. If only she could have used it to cool the rest of her. "Or that Jin girl?"

Zuko nodded. "She was nice. She tried to be nice to me, but I knew I couldn't get close to her. But if she could like me before, and see me as a monster now, then I really have become a different person. And I still couldn't do anything to help anyone." He lightly tapped his fist against the wall of the barrel. "I hate hiding."

"Then why is that all you do around here?"

Zuko shifted, and turned to look at her. "What do you mean?"

Mai met his gaze. "You've been hiding from Azula and your Uncle. You tried your best to hide from me after my mother made a big deal out of it. And let's not forget that you've been hiding from your father. That whole plan you came up with to stay here and rule the city is nothing but hiding."

"I wanted to stay and help these people!"

"Well, it looks like you can't do both." Mai tried to shrug, but in her current position she just succeeded in rubbing her shoulder painfully against the wall of the barrel. "If you want to try to help these people (and I'm not exactly well-inclined towards them right now, but that's your business), then you need to change the whole Fire Nation. And to do that, you need to go home and really be a Prince. So why do you want to hide away here and pretend you're still banished?"

He blinked at her, his eyes wide. Then he nodded, and looked down into the shadows of the barrel. "You're good at cutting straight to the point."

Mai couldn't help but smirk. "Was that a pun?" Zuko looked at her with obvious confusion, so she clarified, "You know, cutting, point. Me being the crazy knife girl?"

"Oh. No, that was unintentional."

"Well, clever with your words or not, you sure know how to show a girl a good time. This is the most excitement I've had on this entire continent."

Zuko snorted. "Crazy knife girl is right. You're a lot more interesting now that you talk and actually do things."

Mai grinned, and hoped she didn't smell as funky as she felt.

Together, they waited in the hot, stifling, sweat-scented barrel, waiting for an hour to pass so that they could rejoin the world.

When Mai woke up, she found Zuko dozing beside her, and the night sky visible through the hole in the barrel's lid.






25 - Assurance

Zuko couldn't believe he had slept with Mai!

Wait, that thought came out wrong. He couldn't believe he had fallen asleep, next to Mai, who had also fallen asleep, while they were both hiding in a funky-smelling barrel from an angry mob that was trying to kill him.

Zuko had to admit that there was probably something wrong with the way he was more comfortable with second thought than the first.

He led Mai down the empty streets of the Lower Ring, sneaking from shadow to shadow, treating the moonlight like a vigilant enemy with too much time on its hands. Zuko was well-practiced at this kind of movement, but while Mai was graceful and silent in her actions, she wasn't used to the ebb and flow of proper sneaking, of using the sound of the breeze to mask the noise of their passage, of using stillness to disappear into the darkness, of analyzing the environment for all those little hiding places that most people never even noticed.

Still, she kept up with him and tried to learn from his actions. That was more than most people would have been able to manage, even if she was stopping to throw blades at any rat that got close to her.

Most of the city had long gone to sleep, and Zuko knew the routes that would take him around the Night Markets and various criminal dens. He had done enough exploration of the nights, back when he was living here, in his guise of the Blue Spirit. As he dashed across a street and skidded to a halt in the shadow between a pair of boxes left lying beside a shop, Zuko couldn't help but wonder if Mai knew about the Blue Spirit, knew that it was him, and was a little impressed at all he had accomplished.

Now, why was he thinking this way? Maybe it was all the time he spent in the barrel with Mai being all sweaty. Hadn't heard something about how Fire Nation scientists discovered that there was something in the sweat of young ladies that attracted men? It sounded ridiculous, so it was probably true. And Mai was being a very good friend today. She was actually listening to what he was saying, and trying to help. No one had done that since- since Mother had left. She wasn't even trying to hide that she was attracted to him, which by itself still made Zuko wonder if she was entirely sane, but she wasn't pressuring him either. She wasn't being like Azula and hiding commands in everything being said. Mai had even apologized this morning for getting miffed at him yesterday when he tried to discourage her interest.

If it was an attempt at reverse psychology, it was working. It helped that Zuko was already attracted to her, in turn.

And Zuko had to acknowledge that was the problem, as he climbed out of a chimney and led Mai on a dash across a series of rooftops. He had tried to discourage her in the first place because he found himself all too amendable to the idea of a relationship with her, and Ty Lee had clued him in that he hurt those who were close to him. He ruined things, even when he had the best intentions. Dare he draw Mai even closer into his life?

Did he still have a choice now that she had already and so easily become a friend?

At last, they reached one of the gates that stood between the Lower and Middle Rings. Zuko had spent a lot of his time, back when he was living in these neighborhoods, trying to figure out how to sneak past the gates. It was a tricky task, but there wouldn't be any need for it tonight. Even at this late hour, there was a Fire Nation guard on station at the gate, with even more ready to act as backup in the nearby station. Zuko stepped out of his dark alley and positioned himself so that the light of the gate's torches fell on his face. "I am Prince Zuko. I require passage through the gate."

"Oh. The Prince himself." The guard, whose gray beard was bristly enough to scrub rust off of a hull, looked anything but enthused to be meeting a hero of the Fire Nation. "Sure, the whims of the royal family are worth all the explaining I'll have to do about why I'm opening the gate at unauthorized hours."

The grumbling almost reminded Zuko of the crew on his ship, back when he was hunting the Avatar, and it worried him that he felt something like nostalgia for it. Ignoring the tone in the man's voice, Zuko motioned behind himself to where Mai was standing. "She's with me."

"Ah, carousing in the Lower Ring, huh? Yes, that's absolutely worth breaking procedure in the middle of the night. All right, hold on, let me get the proper forms so that you can paint your name on them and create all kinds of trouble for me." The guard shuffled into the little shack next to the gate opening and disappeared from view.

Zuko turned to give Mai a smile. "We made it."

Mai nodded, and then a look of surprise flashed across her face and she spun to toss out a flurry of blades past Zuko.

There was a high-pitched cry, and Zuko turned to find Jin pinned to the wall of the shack. (The guard himself called out to ask what was going on, but Zuko didn't care.) How had she found him? Had she been waiting for him at the gate closest to their old neighborhood? He took a step towards her, and couldn't help but say, "Still? Do you really hate me that much?"

Jin tried to throw out a kick, but it fell far short of Zuko. "You deserve to die! You used this city and now you're going to destroy it! I love my home, and I hate you!"

(The guard peeked his head out of the shack. "Oh, just more carousing. I guess we'll be writing off the cost of repainting the shack, because it’s not like we can send the bill to royalty.")

Zuko held out his hands, and tried to let his sincerity shine out of his face. "I didn't use anyone! I was a fugitive when I came here! I wanted to go home, but this was the only place that was safe for me. And it wasn't really safe at all! The Fire Nation found me, and- and the only way I could go home was to help. If you love your home so much then you have to understand what I was doing!"

(The guard smacked himself in the forehead. "It's probably treason to even be hearing this. If anyone asked, I think I'll just tell them I was drunk on duty and don't remember anything. It'll be less trouble that way.")

Jin quieted, and stopped struggling against Mai's knives. "I understand now."

"You do?" Zuko took another step forward.

She nodded, and whispered, "Yes, and I have some thoughts on that." Zuko stepped forward to hear her better, and then she kicked out and caught him in an especially sensitive place that was of extreme importance to the legacy of the royal family.

("Ooh," the guard laughed. "Okay, that was worth seeing.")

Zuko fell to the ground and rolled away from Jin, and over the sound of his own pain he could hear her snarling, "You're a monster! I hate you! I hate the whole Fire Nation! You're a really lousy kisser, and your sister is the queen of the crazy crackpots!

Zuko's ability to think came back as the pain slowly receded, and when he tried to stand, he found Mai ready to help him up. "Thanks," he said.

She smirked at him the torchlight. "You probably deserved that one. Both for whatever you did to her, and also for being dumb enough to get within kicking range."

He could only nod in agreement. Then, another thought occurred to him. "And if we- you and I- if we... start something... and I hurt you... will you hate me just as much?"

Mai quirked an eyebrow. "If you want me to say that I could never hate you, you're going to have a long wait. I want try to find something with you, but this isn't love. Not yet. It's not going to bounce back from whatever stupid things we do. But hating you is a risk I'm willing to take. Are you willing to risk hating me?" It was appropriate, and so very her, not to offer any reassurances.

He thought about his mother, who left him (to protect him).

He thought about his uncle, who chose ideals over him (to save the world).

He thought about his father, who hurt him (to teach him how to be a man).

He thought about his sister, who tormented him (because she was a big jerk).

He thought about himself.

"I don't think hate is something I do anymore," he said.

Together under the moon, they passed through the gate.




Once Lee- er, Zuko was gone, Jin stopped struggling, and looked over at the guard with the scruffy beard. “I guess you’re going to arrest me now for attacking royalty or something. Well, I’m a proud rebel, and everyone says that dying for your country is the greatest ideal you can live for!”

The guard snorted. “I’ve found that a pension is the only ideal worth anything. Tell you what, kid, you brightened my night. How about I unpin you, and you go back to whatever it is you do with your days when you’re not launching daring assaults on the royal jewels. I get the principle of dying for your nation and all that, but keep in mind that a lot of other people have already died for your specific country, and how’s that done for you so far?”

Jin considered that. “I think I can handle math like that. Okay, let me down. I’m officially retired from rebellion. But not kicking jerk boys.”

“The world would be a poorer place if you were, kid.”

TO BE CONTINUED
Death of a Thousand Cuts 4
Previous: Death of a Thousand Cuts 3

Written for Maiko Month 2014, back in May. For 27 of the 31 days of that month, I did a small entry in an ongoing Maiko story. The tale is a romantic comedy giving my take on how Mai and Zuko might have wound up as a couple between Books Earth and Fire. While each entry was published individually on other sites, for deviantArt I'm grouping them by in-story day to avoid blanketing my gallery in 30 small chapters.

The events of this story replace those of the official comic "Going Home Again," and likewise disregard any history between Mai and Zuko that was established by the comic. This isn't out of any problems with "Going Home Again" (I like it well enough), but simply because I think it suffers for being compressed to a small number of pages, and there's opportunity for a lot more fun in the start of Maiko.

Art by :iconmaivry:, specifically illustrating the opening section of Day 23 (Give and Take).
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MAIKO MONTH 2014
DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS: THE THIRD DAY

13 - Memories

After the morning briefing, Zuko somehow managed to dodge a coordinated triple-pronged trap of Ty Lee's disapproving glare, Mai's Mother's enthusiastic attempt to start a conversation, and Azula's scarily cheerful tease that she had just hired a new member of the palace staff. He had to employ a little fancy Blue Spirit footwork and make use of a handy distraction in the form of an angry butterwasp that had made its way into the palace, but he escaped, and didn't even need to use one of the smoke bombs he had started carrying with him.

Once free, he made his way directly to Mai's chambers. She hadn't been at the briefing.

Zuko went to knock on the door and found himself hesitating for a moment. He had things he needed to talk to Mai about, things he was honor bound to settle, but it wasn't going to be fun. On the other hand, it was probably the most pleasant problem Zuko had to deal with, right now.

He raised his hand to knock-

-and the door burst open to release a fleshy blur that Zuko reached out and caught reflexively.

He found himself holding a naked two-year-old. "Tom-Tom?"

The child registered who was holding him, blanched as only a toddler can, and covered his face. "I good!"

Mai's voice rang out through the doorway with all the sharpness of her knives. "You are not good, you little- oh, Zuko. Hello." She came to a skidding stop that she almost managed to look graceful.

Zuko hefted the naked child in his hands. "Lose something?"

"I might have misplaced a naked little brother, yes." Mai almost smiled. "Mother has this peculiarity; she doesn't like to let servants handle her children. Since she had to make a presentation at the morning briefing, she tasked me with getting Tom-Tom dressed for the day." Her eyebrows drew together. "After all, it's not like I have any purpose around here."

Zuko held Tom-Tom out. "Do you want him back? He's missing... well, all his clothes."

"Yes, Zuko, I noticed." With a sigh, she accepted her little brother back. "Thanks for catching him before he set a streaking record for Earth Kingdom history. I don't even know how he got the door open."

"Listen, can we talk? Somewhere that no one can interrupt us?"

Mai quirked an eyebrow. "That sounds ominous. Let me get Tom-Tom in his pants, and then we can kidnap him."




They elected to leave the palace, but it turned out that Azula had already implemented one of Mother's lessons from New Ozai, so Mai and Zuko were forced to take along a fairly robust security team. The good news, though, was that they could hitch a ride on the steam-powered troop-carrier instead of taking the train down to the Lower Ring. Zuko had been the one to suggest the zoo as their destination, since it was as far away as one could get from the palace without actually leaving Ba Sing Se. "It should also keep Tom-Tom occupied," Mai had added, and so the matter was settled.

She and Zuko strolled down a path circling the rabaroo pen, while Tom-Tom waved at the stupid-looking animals within.

It was almost romantic, if one ignored the dozen of spear-carrying soldiers in formation around them, the Firebender scouts who were spread around the empty zoo, and the tank that had been parked in front of the zoo's entrance. "So, what did you want to talk to me about?"

Zuko's face colored, where it wasn't scarred. "At the meeting the other day, your mother said... well, you were there. You heard her."

"And continue to hear in my post-traumatic stress-induced nightmares." Mai had the sudden urge to stab something. Not Mother, necessarily, but something shaped remarkably like her. Mai had taken such care to avoid things coming to this, and Mother had blown the whole thing like Azula blew all her attempts to talk to people without threatening them. This was not going to be a fun conversation, but she could get through it. Emotions were just fancy behavioral suggestions, anyway. "And?"

"Did you lie when you said you wanted me as a friend? Are you really trying to... uh, you know, seduce me?" Zuko was putting up a valiant effort at keeping his face stoic, but now his ears were as red as his Firebending.

Mai imagined Zuko standing in her bedroom, holding a rice hat and watching nervously while she strapped knife-holsters to her bare legs, and couldn’t stop herself from barking a laugh. "If I am, it's the most incompetent seduction in the history of the Fire Nation." Zuko stared at her, and Mai let her mirth go with a sigh. "I didn't lie. I do want to be your friend. Even if we become more, I want to be your friend. But, yes, maybe I have something of a small attraction to your being."

Of all the things she expected Zuko to say, his, "Why?" was not anywhere close to the top.

"Why?" Mai considered it. "Do you remember when we were kids?"

His expression was inscrutable. "You're going to have to be more specific."

"I don't know. Any of the times we were together."

"I remember you never talked, and Azula was always making trouble."

"I talked." Mai thought about it a little more. "Well, maybe not around you."

"So you're saying you've always... been... in love with me?"

Mai snorted. "I don't know much about love, but I've only ever heard that it comes sometime after marriage. Don't get a swelled head, Zuko."

His gaze immediately sank to the ground. "Sorry."

"Forgiven. It's a confusing subject." Tom-Tom came clambering over and grabbed onto Mai's robes. She looked down at him, in a way that struck as a strange parallel to Zuko’s posture. "Can I help you?"

Tom-Tom beamed up at her. "Go hoppy!"

"No thanks, I'm not wearing the right shoes for it."

Tom-Tom frowned, and pointed back at the rabaroo pen. "Hoppy!"

Zuko cleared his throat. "I think he means he saw the rabaroo hop around. I guess he liked it."

"Ah. Yes, Tom-Tom, rabaroos hop. Congratulations on such an important scientific discovery."

Satisfied that his message had gotten through, Tom-Tom smiled and nodded. Then he ran off back to the pen to watch some more. Zuko mumbled, "Were you like that as a baby?"

Mai snorted. "Mother says I learned to walk before I learned how to smile. Some things you're just born with, I guess."

Zuko didn't respond.

All of Mai's instincts said to join the silence, but another part of her, the part that let her pick out a target from across a battlefield and hit it with a piece of sharp metal no bigger than finer, told her that there was an opportunity here. Besides, she had committed to opposing awkward silence wherever it struck, and she couldn’t just let that go. It would ruin her reputation. "Just because I couldn't smile doesn't mean I didn't want to. Being around you made me want to smile when I was kid. And you amuse me now. I really don't want to cause you any trouble with this."

"I understand." Zuko turned to look at her, and while he didn't look anything close to happy, there seemed to be a little relief in his eyes. "I was worried that you had lied to me, the other night. I don't want another Azula in my life." He gave a shudder, and Mai could sympathize. Azula was fun, but the world was better off with just one of her. "And if I can trust you... I have something to tell you."

There was a sensation in Mai's chest that she thought might be some kind of unhealthy arrhythmia, but she didn't drop dead, so she simply said, "Yes?"

"I... might not be going back to the Fire Nation."

That... was not what she was expected him to say. Irrationally, she wanted to stab him for breaking script, but Mai was too self-aware to give in to irrational behavior like that without at least some snarky commentary. "Okay."

"Ba Sing Se is important. Staying here to rule wouldn't be dishonorable." He looked away again, first at his feet, then over at where Tom-Tom was trying to climb into the rabaroo pen while a pair of guards grappled with him. "I wouldn't be accomplishing anything if I went back... home... and this way I don't have to put my father into an uncomfortable position. He said I couldn't come back until I captured the Avatar, and-"

"Close enough," Mai broke in.

Zuko continued as if he hadn't heard her, "-it would be a risk for him to go back on that at such a vulnerable time. He needs to appear strong after our victory. This might be the best way for everyone."

Mai found that she had to unclench her fists. "So that's that, then. Omashu was bad enough; I'm not staying here after Azula and Mother leave."

Zuko nodded slowly. "That's that, then."

Mai sighed. Was he really going to be this stupid? Running away because he didn't want to risk his daddy hurting him again? Then Mai looked at his face again, and realized that maybe he had a point. She couldn't be selfish about this; that would be too Azula-like, and the last thing Mai wanted was for Zuko to think of her as a sister, no matter what the Fire Lords of several centuries ago had considered suitable marriage material.

That's that, then.

The guards came back carrying a squirming Tom-Tom. "Milady, he was trying to climb into-"

"I saw. Give to me and shut up." Mai took her brother into her arms, but he only had eyes for Zuko.

Tom-Tom had tears in his eyes and screeched, "I good! No face!"

Zuko reached out and put a hand on Tom-Tom's bald head. It brought his hand close enough to her body that she could feel his heat, but they weren't quite touching. Zuko whispered, "I know you're good. You're a good son and a good brother. You don't have to worry about me burning you. I'll never do that. Never."

Tom-Tom quieted, and Zuko walked away.

Mai felt a burning in her chest, and put it down to the fire flakes she had eaten for breakfast against Mother's advice. It would be too stupid to think that it was some kind of emotional reaction, and Mai prided herself on not being stupid.

Most of the time.






15 - Faith

Pijiu was wiping down the bar (he prided himself on being one of the few bartenders in the Lower Ring to ever do so) and happily ignoring the roughhousing antics of the regulars when the Fire Nation girl walked in.

She shoved the door open and paused to shout back at what looked like an entire company of soldiers: "No, go back without me! I don't need protection. Besides, you're annoying me, and you should all know by now what I do when I'm annoyed." The door swung shut behind her, and she stomped into the tavern with all the bravado of newly recruited guardsman- and twice the stupidity, given that she was the only one wearing red in the whole building. Beside her, a toddler- tied to the girl with a length of rough twine- ran along with her as she made a buzzard-beeline for Pijiu himself.

She was young, but she had a scary countenance the belied her age. Well, Pijiu was no pushover himself, and he was old enough that he didn't need to advertise the fact. Stowing his rag beneath the bar, he looked her right in the eyes. "Can I help you, young lady?"

Pijiu heard the toddler babbling out of view, but the girl ignored the child and said, "I want to order something. Is it true that heartbroken people find solace in drink, or something like that?"

Pijiu shrugged. "They certainly try. I'm happily married, and all my regulars prefer to find boneheaded entertainment in their drinks, so I can't say I'm much of an expert."

"Why do they try? The heartbroken ones, I mean."

"Well, I expect that they want to get too drunk to feel the pain of their loss. Or to remember the feeling."

The girl considered that. "But they're still miserable?"

"Pretty much."

"That's stupid. But apparently I'm a very stupid person. Give me something."

"As you say, Red."

Her eyebrows scrunched. "Red?"

"Your clothes." Pijiu retrieved the clay jub he was thinking of, and poured a mug of the golden liquid, richer in shade than the girl's own dull eyes. "To your health, Red."

She took a small sip. "Cider?"

"Apple juice, actually."

"And how exactly am I supposed to get drunk on juice?"

"You're not." Pijiu crossed his arms over his wide chest. "Ba Sing Se has a minimum drinking age of sixteen. How old are you?"

"...seventeen."

"Nice try. Since you're lying, I'm going to assume you're only fifteen. Enjoy your juice, Red."

Pijiu tensed in case she decided to make trouble, but Red just snorted and shook her head. "That's stupid. Whoever heard of a minimum drinking age? In the Fire Nation, kids drink wine all the time."

"Well, in Ba Sing Se, the Dai Li have enforced a minimum age for centuries. Register a complaint with them."

"Eh, I'll just go over their heads." Red took another sip of her cider. "For now, I'll settle for getting psychologically drunk."

"Have fun with that."

Pijiu was going to go back to cleaning his bar, but the toddler- forgotten until now- let out a screeching cry of, "Wanna go home, Mai!"

"In a minute, Tom-Tom. Big sister is thirsty and trying to put off being arrested for matricide."

Pijiu chuckled. "I can't have an unhappy visitor." He found a discarded cork, used his knife to carve a little smiling face in the bulbous top, and leaned over the bar to hand it to the child. "Here you go, Little Red. This is Kuei the Cork, and he wants to be your friend."

The child smiled with his whole face and grasped the cork. "Friend! T'ank you!"

Pijiu nodded. "You're welcome, Little Red." To the sister, he said, "He's a bubbly one. Are one of you adopted?"

Red looked up from her mug. "Very funny. Are you saying I'm not bubbly?"

"I'll just say you're going to make a downright terrifying mother-in-law one day."

She snorted, although whether it was with amusement or derision was an open question. "Is that supposed to be an opening to explain why I don't think much of my prospects for becoming a mother-in-law someday?"

"Not really. I'd walk away from you and get on with my job if I didn't think the rest of the tavern would attack you. I'd rather avoid having your nation's soldiers tear apart my place of employment, but that doesn't mean I want to hear your life story. I find that the best thing you could do for maudlin people is not let them indulge their tendency to whine."

"Good advice." She downed the last of the mug. "Give me another." Pijiu did so, hoping she'd actually pay when she was done, and she immediately took another quaff. "So you don't get many Fire Nation people in here?"

"Yeah, imagine that, your soldiers don't want to drink where they have to maintain a defensive formation. And the administrators don't like coming down to the Lower Ring, of course."

"Until now." She tilted her head. "Although, I'm technically not an administrator. I work for one, and my mother is one, and my stupid not-a-boyfriend wants to style himself as one, but I'm just the useless hanger-on no one actually wants hanging on."

"That psychology have you feeling a little tipsy?"

"I'm working on it." Red took another long pull from her mug. "What I don't get is why anyone would want to rule this stupid city when they have the option of hanging out with a girl and going home. Oh, uh, no offense to your stupid city."

"None taken, it's pretty stupid at times." As long as he was playing babysitter, Pijiu decided to get on with his cleaning and retrieved his rag.

Red didn't seem to mind. "Exactly! It's a stupid city! I don't have the slightest idea why we wanted to conquer it in the first place. It's crowded, smelly, full of people wearing green, and then there's the whole paranoid secret police thing." Red looked down into her mug, perhaps seeking some of the truth she must have heard about in whatever stories she read about the solace-seeking broken-hearted. "But then, I guess Zuko can kind of relate with the whole paranoid authority thing."

"Zuko?"

"The guy who theoretically broke my heart." Red finished her second mug, and frowned. "I've decided that psychology is not particularly intoxicating, but this juice is good. Give me another." Pijiu obliged, and while he poured, Red went on, "The thing I don't get is why he doesn't want to be happy. He's gone two or three years solid being punished, and now he has a chance to fix everything and make out with me, but he's acting like he'd rather stick with the punishment. Maybe he was hit in the head at some point?"

Pijiu found himself smiling. "As tempting as you might be to people who appreciate exotic Fire Nation beauties, I think it was something else. You don't get out much, do you, Red?"

"As little as possible. Whatever you heard about people from the Fire Nation, we don't actually all worship the sun. Especially not since the whole virgin sacrifice thing came to an end."

"Well, there go all my precious stereotypes." Pijiu was going to laugh, but then he found it all too believable that the Fire Nation had human sacrifice in its history. They were certainly cranky enough for it. "But really, I think your boy's problem (Zuzo, was it?) is pretty common. Take a look at most of the refugees in the Lower Ring. Most of them have been poor and scrambling for so long, they don't know how to live any other way. They've been beaten and beaten, and they've forgotten what it's like to be safe, so they go on expecting the next beating. And soon enough 'expecting' becomes 'looking for' and they're causing their own problems, like letting the Dai Li walk all over them."

Red tapped the side of her mug. "They have no faith in themselves or the world."

"Exactly."

Red took another long drink from her mug. "That's stupid."

"You use that word a lot."

"Well, if everything would stop being stupid, I'd stop talking about it. But really, everyone has problems. I may be rich and powerful and part of a conquering nation, but I've had bad things happen to me, and you don't see me giving up!"

Pijiu's eyebrows rose. "Oh, you have faith in yourself and the world?"

Red started to say something, stopped, took a sip from her mug, and snorted. "I did before this guy got his punishment. No point in having faith in anything after you see something like that. But I just found new ways to get my jollies, more or less. Mostly by stabbing things."

"Ah, your experiences and wisdom outclasses mine, milady. I'm just trash from the Lower Ring." Pijiu bowed his head deferentially.

She actually rolled her eyes at him. "Oh, shut up, you're going to have to do better than that. I'm more experienced with sarcasm, than... um..."

"Taverns, bartenders, drunken rambling, romance, and the ways of people and the world?"

"Yeah, sure, let's go with that." Red finished the last of her cider, and plopped the mug down with finality. "Good stuff, but now I have to pee. I'm going home." She dropped a gold piece, worth far more than she had drunk, on the bar and reached down to pick up her brother. "Let's go, squirt."

As Red began to walk away, Pijiu's eyes ran over the tavern, and took in how all the regulars had gone silent. They were watching Red, and the tension was thick enough to drink out of the air with a straw. Pijiu wasn't at all happy about the occupation, but he wasn't the type to take it out on a girl too young to know anything about anything. Besides, she didn't seem all that big on the occupation, herself.

The others in the tavern did not seem to share Pijiu's opinion.

"Hey," he called out.

Red turned around.

"My shift ends soon. Stick near me and I'll walk you to the nearest guard station."

Red actually smirked at him. "I hate to break it to you, but I didn't actually come here to drink and talk about my troubles." She turned to the rest of the patrons. "The Earth Kingdom is a worthless mud-hole that smells like feet!"

Everyone slammed their chairs back and jumped to their feet, and threw themselves at Red.

What happened next was the most amazing and violent thing Pijiu had ever seen. Red seemed to summon knives out of thin air with on hand while she held on to her brother with the other, each step both taking her away from an attacker while sending projectiles of all varieties flying around. As fast as everything happened, Pijiu could only figure out what was happening by the after-effects. Most of the blades found homes in the clothes of the various patrons, pinning them to walls and tables and even the floor. There was a spray of blood here and there and bodies dropped to the ground, but their subsequent groans and curses proved that death apparently wasn't in the mood for a visit tonight.

In the end, Red stood alone in the center of the tavern, her brother giggling in her arms. "Mai play game?"

"Yes, Tom-Tom. I was playing a very fun adult game that you're not going to tell Mother about."

"Game!"

Then she walked out and disappeared in the night.

Pijiu could only stand and stare for a long moment, listening to the pained moans of all his other customers. When the crippling horror finally faded away, he rushed to find paper, ink, and a brush. He had a very important note to send to some good friends of his:

'The uprising is canceled. We never had a chance.'






16 - Glass

Ty Lee was just about to put on her coat (because even though it was hot out, you had to put on your coat before searching for a missing person) and go out looking for Mai when she ran into her friend heading towards the Royal Earth Bathroom. "Mai!"

Tom-Tom popped from out from around his sister. "Tlee!"

"Tom-Tom!"

"Hi!"

Ty Lee ran over to the toddler and picked him up. "Hi!"

"Hi!"

"Hi!"

"Hi!"

"Hi!"

"Hi!"

"Hi!"

"Stop," Mai barked. "Knowing you two, that could have actually lasted all night."

Reminded of her mission, Ty Lee turned back to her friend and tried not to blanch at the sight of her aura. Mai always had a gray glow to her, but now it was even darker than usual, shrunken tight against her body. "Where have you been?! You missed lunch! And your Mother has been worried! And you missed dinner! Well, more like your mother was miffed at you for missing a social engagement, but 'worried' sounds better. And Zuko came back without you and he didn't even save you any lunch or dinner!"

"Thanks for catching me up. It's like I haven't been away all day at all. Now if you'll excuse me, I have an urgent need to use the Earthy Girls' room."

Mai moved towards the bathroom that had once serviced the royal digestive system of the Earth King, but Tom-Tom gave a tug on Ty Lee's bangs and proclaimed, "Mai go bar 'n'play grown-up games with men! No tell Mommy!"

Ty Lee saw a pulse of the most terrified gray shoot through her own aura, and she quickly set Tom-Tom down and then flung herself at Mai. "Oh no I knew this would happen you tossed away your self-respect please Mai don't hurt yourself to hurt Zuko he's not worth it think of your health and your aura!"

"Ty?"

"Yes?"

"Give me back my personal space."

Ty Lee eased out of her hug. "Sorry, I was just really concerned-"

"Get your mind out of the midden heap." Mai's eyes glinted like her knives in the sunlight. "I was drinking apple juice and picking fights with drunks. I didn't even mess my hair."

"Oh." Ty Lee took a second to process that. It did sound a lot more like the Mai she knew, and in retrospect it would be pretty silly for Mai to take her little brother along with her on a descent into debauchery. Ty Lee herself would have been a much more logical partner, and as she examined the idea within her head she realized that a night on the town with Mai, looking to pick up boys, actually sounded like a lot of fun. "You want to go do that other thing, then? It's still pretty early-"

"I want to go to the bathroom. Now." Mai then proceeded to step into the bathroom and slam the door shut.

Ty Lee leaned against the wall and looked down at Tom-Tom. Tom-Tom looked back up at her and explained, "Mai go potty."

Of course, Ty Lee had to giggle. She turned and shouted through the bathroom door, "So you and your brother were out having fun all day? I have to admit, that's a much healthier response to Zuko hurting you than I expected."

Mai's shout rose above the sound of the flush: "I never said that Zuko did anything to me!"

"Well, yeah, that's the problem, isn't?" Ty Lee grinned at the squawk that echoed through the door. "Remember, I can see your aura, and you haven't been this gray since you learned how to change Tom-Tom's nap-nap!"

"I use potty! I big boy!"

"I know, sweetie, I was talking about when you were a little baby."

"Oh."

The sound of running water finally ceased, and the bathroom door popped open to reveal Mai in all her usual terrible wrath. "There's no such things as auras, I'm not upset about Zuko, and he could go chase the Avatar's ghost until he keels over for all I care."

Ty Lee blinked. "He wants to go chase the Avatar's ghost? How would that work?"

"Ugh." Mai dropped her head into her hands. "I wasn't being literal. Zuko said he wants to stay in Ba Sing Se and rule peasants or something."

"Ohhhhhhhhhh." Suddenly, the entire situation was illuminated like a Fire Festival in the night. "See, this was what I was worried about. Zuko's so wrapped up in himself that he's just going to walk all over anyone who tries to get close to him. At least he did it before you two really got together. Now the healing can begin."

"Whatever." Mai brushed past Ty Lee and scooped up Tom-Tom as she began making her way down the hall.

Ty Lee, of course, followed. She couldn't abandon her friend when she was in such pain. "Let yourself feel, Mai! I know it hurts, but letting yourself feel it is the way you get over it, and when you're in the mood we can go trash Zuko's room or something. Then it's just a matter of finding a pair of cute guys in the Upper Ring and asking them if they want to take a moonlit stroll beside the aqueducts and-"

"Ty, you're being stupid, and I've had more than enough of stupid." She gave a sigh, because of course Mai sighed, but this one was of a tone and thickness that Ty Lee had never heard before. "This isn't really any worse than it's ever been. I was upset when Zuko was banished, yes, and that showed me how hard the world really was."

"And you got hard, too."

"Exactly. So yes, I'm annoyed that Zuko doesn't want to come home and try to have a good thing with me, but this isn't going to destroy me or anything. I'm firmly in control."

Ty Lee considered that. "You're saying that you can't freeze ice once it's already frozen?"

"Sure, let's go with that."

"Oh, but that's the completely wrong metaphor!"

Mai turned to give a flustered look, for her. Her eyebrows were as high as they could go. "It's your metaphor!"

"Yeah, but it was what you were trying to say. Really, though, we're talking more about something like glass transition."

"Like... what?"

"Glass transition." Ty Lee took a breath and said, "It's a process that only happens to polymers. The polymers are really amorphous but they can seem solid at certain temperatures, kind of a semi-crystal state. So you'd think that if you get them really cold, it wouldn't matter, because they're not like water that's just going to freeze, right? Except polymers become fully crystalline, extra frozen and all brittle if you get them to a certain coldness, which is why glass is hard but shattery! So they call it glass transition because it's not like there are all that many famous polymers, right?" Mai had stopped walking at some point during the explanation, and Ty Lee had to trot a few steps back to reverse-catch-up. "You okay?"

Mai blinked. "How... you... what..." She shook her head and crunched her eyes closed like she had a headache. "How do you know that?"

"I learned it in the circus. Where else?"

Ty Lee waited a long time for Mai to say something again. "And the point of explaining glass transition to me is... what?"

Ty Lee thought it was obvious, but she supposed that Mai wasn't really in a state to be properly objective about her own emotions. "You're the polymer, and you were in a semi-crystal state, but now Zuko has frozen you up, and you're so brittle you're ready to shatter at the first stiff breeze!"

"...really? That's the metaphor you're going with?"

"Sure, why not?"

Mai said nothing. She tilted her head one way, and then the other. She turned to look at Tom-Tom, and he shrugged at her. Finally, she faced Ty Lee again. "Actually, that makes a weird kind of sense."

"Yay!"

"But Zuko doesn't care about me, so I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with this knowledge."

"Well, we can trash his room-"

"Oops, we're near Mother's suite; I guess that's goodbye for now."

Ty Lee frowned. They weren't anywhere near the suite. "We aren't anywhere near-" But Mai had already sprinted off.

Well, that was rude. But Mai was hurting, so Ty Lee could forgive her.






17 - Break

When Zuko heard the ringing cry of, "There you are," he almost launched a pre-emptive Firebending attack. Only the fact that he was in mid-step kept this from happening, in that his attempt to spin in place and kick a fireball was hampered by not being properly rooted, and so all he managed to do was move like he was having a seizure of some kind and crash to the floor.

"Oh, dear," the voice said, and despite Zuko's pain and humiliation, he managed to identify it, in a manner of speaking. He still didn't know Mai's Mother's real name, but he had managed to get by without it so far.

She knew her place very well, and so didn't even look at him as she scrambled on the dusty floor. Zuko quickly got up and dusted himself off. "You were looking for me?"

"Yes, dear." She inclined her head respectfully. "I'm sorry to impinge on your royal alone-time, but I need to speak to you."

Zuko hoped she didn't realize what he had been intending to spend his royal alone-time on. "This isn't something you could take to Azula?"

"Oh, uh, the Princess is of course clever and wise, and quite capable of handling whatever problems come her way." Mai's Mother's eyes shifted. "But this isn't something that can be solved by setting someone on fire or with harsh words that will inevitably break her victim’s spirit."

Yes, that would definitely disqualify Azula. "What do you need, then?"

"Well, dear, I've just come away from speaking with my daughter."

"Mai's home?" Zuko felt fear stab into his heart, which was a very apt metaphor because his fear was of Mai stabbing him in the heart with something that was a lot more solid than fear. "Is she okay?"

"Oh, she's fine; thank you for asking. Of course, she's not in the best of moods, but... ah..." She paused as she tried to find a way to insult her daughter (or so Zuko expected) while simultaneously trying to make her seem endearing to him. "Well, she's quite a unique flower, one with dark colors that doesn't smell especially fragrant. But that's a metaphor, of course; Mai smells quite nice, I've taught her proper grooming."

"Oh. Uh, okay." Zuko let out the breath he had been holding. "That's good. That she’s back I mean, not that she doesn’t stink. Thank you for informing me. That she’s home." He was going to turn to go back the way he came, towards the residential wing of the Earth Palace, but Mai's Mother shifted so that she was not quite but almost in his path.

"Actually, dear, I wanted to talk to you about that. Mai might not have ever been the most outgoing child, but her moods definitely took a turn for the sour once she hit her teens. (You weren't around to see that, of course.) However, she's been positively expressive here in Ba Sing Se. As far as flowers go, she's been quite blooming. Up until tonight."

Ah, so he wasn't going to be stabbed to death, as he had feared after his talk with Mai at the zoo, but her mother was going to try to talk him into submission using the most humiliating metaphors that she could imagine. Well, that was probably better than the alternative, but still something that Zuko felt merited an expeditious retreat. "I'm... sorry to hear that. I hope she feels better. Now, if-"

"Yes." Mai's Mother's expression turned hard, despite her perpetual pleasant smile. "I managed to pry out of her that her mood might have something to do with you intending on staying in this city as an administrative representative for the Fire Lord?"

"That's true."

Mai's Mother nodded in a disturbingly grim fashion. She was almost starting to remind Zuko of his father. Good thing she wasn't a Firebender. "Well, it seems I am truly needed, then. Normally, this would be the type of thing that your parents should talk to you about, but... um... well, you know your situation better than I do." She waved the thought away. "You do realize that you're royalty, don't you?"

"Of course, I-"

"Good. Then why would you stay in this dysfunctional land of savages?"

Zuko blinked. "But Mai said that your husband is the governor of Omashu. And the people here aren't really-"

"Yes, dear, but that's a step up for us. You're now the Fire Lord's crown heir; you'd just be wasting your time ruling this hole in the ground."

Zuko blinked again. Was she right? He thought he had found an ideal compromise for his situation, but was he really mistaking things so badly? He had lived among the people of the Earth Kingdom, and while for a time he had wanted to set them all on fire for making him eat their filthy garbage, he had found a few who he could have been friends with if they had been born in the right place and of the proper station.

The magnitude of that thought nearly knocked Zuko to the ground. Really, he had hated the Earth Kingdom so much, hated how Jet he betrayed him, how Pao had made him bring tea to peasants, how Jin had made him feel vulnerable in new and squishy ways. But now that he had the opportunity to go home, he wanted to stay here, and was more inclined to remember Jet as a fellow warrior of Justice, Pao as a boss who helped Zuko clean up that time he dropped a tray, and Jin as a really cute girl. How could that be? It was like he had been broken into two people, one from before the Avatar had died and one from after.

He found himself touching his scar.

"Thank you for that insight," he mumbled. "You've given me a lot to think about." Mai's Mother smiled and bowed, and Zuko hurried away from her.
With any luck, she wouldn't realize that they were in the corridor leading to the stairs to the dungeons, where Uncle was still under guard.






18 - Atonement

A knock sounded on the metal door, and Iroh's eyes flew open. There was little to see in his dungeon cell, aside from mold, rats, and a fascinating new species of lichen, but the peephole in the door was being slid open, and a small shaft of torchlight reached in to offer comfort.

Iroh cleared his throat. "Who knocks on the guarded gate?"

"Eh, how about the guy who normally does the guarding? Po's on break, so I figured I'd make my report."

"Lieutenant Lee, please, there are certain protocols we must observe."

"Oh, all right. (Ahem.) 'One who has eaten the fruit and tasted its mysteries.' Whatever mysteries taste like. Don't know why a club for a practical thing like Pai Sho has to get all fancy about-"

"Thank you. Lee." Iroh shifted out of the lotus position he had been sitting in and stretched his arms. "Now, what news?"

"Well, the situation in Ba Sing Se has taken a massive turn for the better. No, I lie; I wanted to try saying something different tonight. Pacification of the city continues. Princess Azula is still on track to finalize her control and then hand it over to a permanent governor by the start of the summer, and then it’s back to the Fire Nation for parties and lollipops, or whatever warms her cheeks."

"I see." Iroh had no doubt that the momentum of Azula's victory could not be shifted by just the forces available in Ba Sing Se. In fact, with the Earth Kingdom defeated, there was no active source of power in the world that could displace the Fire Nation. Iroh had already decided that it was time to awaken the sleeping giant that was the White Lotus organization, but he continued to hope that something would happen that would make it unnecessary. An organization, once it turned militant, was not easily restored to peacefulness. "And what of the other matters?"

Lee's voice, echoing through peephole in the metal door, turned brighter. "Oh, well, that's picked up in a rather amusing way. Typical disclaimer that I only hear things third- or fourth-hand on account of standing in front of your little door here at all waking hours, but there's some juicy gossip about your nephew. Princey there is still doing a lot of sulking and making aborted attempts to amble on by your cell, but word is that your nephew actually stepped out into the daylight. Took guards all the way to the Lower Ring!"

Iroh sat up even straighter than his usual. "Not to hurt anyone, I hope!"

"Oh, sorry about that, I didn't mean to imply that kind of thing. I was hoping you'd focus on the 'stepping out into daylight' bit. Thought it was a clever piece of symbolism, myself, but that's aside from it. What happened was Prince Zuko actually left the palace in the company of a young lady to tour the zoo on the other side of the city. The Prince returned alone, however, and the young lady in question only came back hours later with a very scary look on her face, so the betting is divided between him getting too grabby and being chased off, or her finding out that the Prince is otherwise occupied on the romantic front. (That last one has the longer odds.)"

Iroh had to admit, that wasn't anything close to the news he was expecting about Zuko. A memory came to him, fuzzy and corrupted by the lack of real attention he paid to the news at the time, but he recalled the matter of a possible crush in Zuko's childhood. "Which young lady was it? The one with the shiny hair, sallow personality, and a tendency to sigh like a leaky bellow?"

"Yup, got her down to the corners, that's for sure. Sucks the life right out of a room, that one does."

"So my nephew is finally spending his idle time on something other than his rage. But it sounds like he will soon be back in his old rut."

"Oh, you haven't heard the other rumors! Seems Prince Zuko has been getting all keen in the morning briefings, and has started hitting up Omashu consultant for advice. Word is he's talking about jockeying to be the governor who gets his sister's sloppy seconds (city-wise, of course, didn't mean to imply otherwise) and runs Ba Sing Se. And that's the word from the servants who pour the tea around here, so if the Prince is sticking to his usually chatty nature (bit of sarcasm there, sorry about that), it's possible that the Princess hasn't heard about that yet."

Zuko wanted to stay?! That wouldn't do at all! Iroh had failed to guide Zuko to the proper path for his life, but he held on to hope that someday, when Zuko had seen for himself the emptiness of the life he thought he wanted, he would be able to show his nephew his true destiny. But he couldn't do that if Zuko was in a completely different nation! Iroh had much to atone for- his time as the Fire Nation's warlord, his failure to save Ba Sing Se, and his inadequacy when it came to parenting Zuko- and it was far too late to let any opportunities to fix things pass him by.

"Lee, I need you to do a favor for me."

"You came to the right place, then. Friend to all askers, that's me. What do you need?"

"I need you to use your contacts among the servants, and find a way to rekindle the romance between Mai and Zuko. For all his mistakes, he is a man of strong personal loyalty, and if she returns to the Fire Nation with her master Azula, then he will follow."

"...and that's a good thing, now?"

"The redemption of the Fire Nation will happen through Zuko or not at all, Lee."

"Oh, and he's gotta be in the Fire Nation for that to work out, eh? I getcha, I getcha. Only, I'm not sure how exactly we're supposed to arrange for the Princey to suddenly be a proper gentleman. Probably easier to get Princess Azula to stop kicking camelpuppies, I'd think."

"I have faith in the palace servants, Lee. I have tasted their tea, and truly there is wisdom hidden away and thriving within them. Let them know what must be done, and they will arrange for Zuko to atone for whatever happened at the zoo today with the young lady."

"Er, well, if you say s- oops, here comes Po. Mum's the word, sir, but not to my mum, as she'd have me over her knee if she knew I was consorting with Pai Sho players." The peephole was slid shut, and Lee's words were muffled as he said, "Hey, Po, how was the break? Did you bring me that drink I asked for?"

Iroh settled back into a lotus position and once again sought a meditative state. It was a long shot, hoping that Zuko was enough of a teenage boy to chase the girl interested in spending time with him. Certainly, the same situation with Jin had been a disaster. However, Iroh remembered this Mai from the times he had returned home between campaigns and tried to be an uncle to his niece, and Mai’s spirit was quite different from Jin's. Much less aggressive, of course, but also patient and watchful. If she had taken it into her head to make Zuko court her, she wouldn't chase him away with a single strike of forwardness and emotion. She would chip away at Zuko's utter ineptitude for romance, killing his resistance with a thousand shallow cuts.

Iroh never would have figured such a gloomy girl could set Zuko on the path to atonement for the entire Fire Nation, and certainly she wouldn't be doing so on purpose, but sometimes love could be the lever that shifted the entire world.

Here's hoping she was pretty.






19 - Fly

Mai was at a crossroads.

Mother wanted her to take Zuko a late night tea and make nice; this suited Mai, because even if he wanted to be stupid and devote the rest of his life to punishing himself, she still really did want him to think of her as a friend. Ty Lee, on the other hand, wanted Mai to go trash Zuko's rooms as some kind of petty catharsis; this also suited Mai, because as far as she was concerned, violent catharsis was something that should be enjoyed as often as possible, and Zuko most definitely had it coming.

Being a very clever person, Mai comprised by deciding to offer Zuko a late-night just-friends tea date, and if she couldn't find him she'd go ahead and trash it one of his rooms in a limited way that wouldn't be too melodramatic.

With tea service and tray in hand, Mai made her way to Zuko's suite and knocked on the door. She waited, but there was no answer. She knocked again, and no sightings of Zuko were forthcoming, but Mai thought she heard something moving within. Was Zuko hiding from her? She tried to open the door, but it was locked and didn't budge. She considered trying to pick the lock with one of her stilettos, but she didn't actually know how to do that, and couldn't believe it was something an amateur was capable of or else everyone would be doing it.

That's when a servant conveniently came along and noticed Mai standing there with her tea set. "Oh," the older woman said, "do you need to get into the Prince's room? Here, I just so happen to have a key."

Mai raised her favorite eyebrow. "Not that I'm complaining, but are you allowed to do that?"

The woman slotted the key into the door and smiled. "I keep my eyes open. I know what's needed around here." The lock clicked, and the servant slipped the key back into her sleeve and began gliding away. "Enjoy your tea, milady. It smells divine." She turned a corner and was gone like a dream.

Well, that was strange, but also quite fortunate. Mai elected to make the best of the situation and opened the door to Zuko's suite-

-and froze in place when she laid eyes on the girl standing in the center of his receiving parlor, the moonlight streaming through the windows behind her.

The girl quickly hid something behind her back, and returned the stare she was getting. Mai didn't know her, although she did recognize the girl's outfit as being advanced technology that came out of the Northern Air Temple's design labs and implemented by the Fire Nation's Covert Operations division. It was something called "lingerie" (the etymology completely escaped Mai) and functioned by covering an absolute minimum of the female body in such a way that hinted (and winked) at what was being obscured. The spy corps, according to the reports Azula had shared, was finding it highly useful for ferreting out traitors in the colonies.

Mai had to admit, the girl looked good in it. "Who are you, and why are you almost naked in Zuko's room?"

The girl's face turned bright red, which matched the black fabric of her outfit rather effectively. "Um, I'm Prince Zuko's official Companion."

"Come again?"

"His companion. You know, doing companion stuff?"

"Come again?"

"Princess Azula hired me."

"Come again?"

"My name is Jin."

"Come again?"

Jin's eyes narrowed. "Look, I'm trying to be helpful. What's your problem, lady?"

"Maybe if you explained why anyone would possibly think that Zuko would need a half-naked local piece of trash his room, I'd be able to wrap my head around this." Mai realized she was still holding her tray with the full tea service, and briefly considered various options, including throwing the whole thing at this Jin girl, but elected to hold onto it for now. Throwing scalding water could come later, if warranted.

A slow smile grew across Jin's face. "Prince Zuko and I are quite close. We got entangled while he was living in the Lower Ring. Now, who are you, and why are you breaking into the Prince's room?"

Mai blinked.

Mai blinked again.

Mai blinked a third time to buy a little time.

Then she let her face settle into a dull void, and moved forward to deposit the tea service on the table in the center of the parlor. "I'm Mai, Princess Azula's personal assassin. I wasn't informed that she found someone else to keep an eye on Zuko for her."

"Oh." Jin seemed mollified by that. "Well, uh, she did, so... I guess you'll be on your way." She took a few idle steps to the side, as though she couldn't keep still, but it was clear that she was trying to keep Mai from seeing behind her back.

It was so inept it was almost cute.

Mai let her sleeves fall loose to cover her hands, and a pair of finger twitches summoned a stiletto to fall into each of her palms. Keeping the weapons hidden, Mai took another step forward. "Actually, I have something I need to say to Zuko. So, if you don't mind, I'll just wait here with you. That shouldn't be a problem, right?"

Jin's eyes widened and Mai could see the panic wavering across the glistening surfaces. The girl was obviously an amateur, and if Mai's read on the situation was correct and the object behind Jin's back really was a-

-Jin whipped a butterfly blade from around her back and lunged for Mai.

The broad, stubby knife flew straight at Mai's chest, but it would need a whole third of a second for it to reach its target. That left her plenty of time to slash with the stiletto in her right hand, deflecting Jin's attack and knocking the knife into the air, and then bring the stiletto in her left hand up to stop unwavering just short of Jin's throat.

Things were frozen that way for a long moment, and then Mai realized what was going on.

A strange local girl.

Someone from Zuko's past.

Wearing something that made Ty Lee's beachwear preferences seem positively modest.

Wielding knives and striking at the slightest provocation.

It was all too obvious. Azula had hired a replacement for Mai. Somehow, the princess had found out about Mai's intentions towards Zuko, and brought in a cheap knock-off who could blush and titter about past romantic shenanigans while playing with knives.

It was almost insulting.

But Mai knew how to handle insults.

She drew her knives back and flipped them into their hidden holsters in her sleeves. "Nice try."

Jin sighed. (Another thing she was copying from Mai!) "Why does this keep happening to me?"

"We're professionals. You really think you can walk off the street and compete?"

"I guess not."

Mai put an arm around Jin's bare shoulders. "Actually, there's something I can show you that should improve your situation."

Jin perked up. "You'd do that for me?"

"I want Zuko to be happy. And he'll be much happier if his companion can handle a knife properly."

Jin forced a giggle. "Thanks. Because I have no intention of hurting with me knives, of course."

Mai suppressed a bored, “Whatever,” and led Jin over to the windows. A cool nighttime breeze floated in through them, teasing the tails of Mai's hair. "I’m happy to help. Just look over here."

"Where?"

"Out the window."

"Why? What am I looking for?"

"The ground."

"What?"

And then Mai pushed Jin out the window.

There was a scream that lasted about three stories, brought to an end by a satisfying crashing sound.

Mai turned and tiptoed out of Zuko's room before anyone saw her.




Lying in the remains of a giant bush that had once been sculpted in the shape of a badgermole, Jin had one thing to say about her situation:

"Ow."






21 - Forgotten

Mai spoke as soon as Azula opened the door to her suite. "Perhaps you can tell me why I just had to push someone out of a window?"

To her credit, Azula just nodded. "I assume you finally embraced your loathing for all of humankind and have become a serial killer."

Mai had to admit, the notion sounded appealing, if she ignored how much effort it would take. "Not at this time, no. The girl I pushed to her death was hanging around Zuko's room with a deadly weapon and a deadly lack of decent clothing. She said you hired her."

"Oh. Her." Azula frowned. "Mai, did you really have to do that? Do you know how much time it took me to find that one? I interviewed fifty simpering ninnies before I encountered a girl capable of keeping Zuzu busy, and it was a lucky find that she not only had a history with my brother, but it could be played for either romance or a murderous rivalry. She was the perfect distraction!"

Mai gave a lazy half-shrug. "Oops. Maybe next time you should notify me of these things before you give a knife to a rank amateur and send her across my path."

"I didn't give her the knife, she brought her own! Another point in her favor!" Then Azula processed what Mai had said. "How is Zuko's room anywhere close to your so-called path? Don't tell me you're accepting assassination contracts on the Royal Family without my permission now. That's a very unprofessional conflict of interest, not to mention treasonous. And also rude."

Mai suddenly remembered that they were having this conversation in the hallway of the Earth Palace. "Let me in and I'll explain."

Azula rolled her eyes but backed from the doorway. Mai followed her in to the suite's parlor, which of course was covered in Fire Nation flags and disturbingly large prints of the Fire Lord's face. Mai thought she detected a trace of red lipstick on one of the pictures that had been hung at eye-level, and quickly averted her eyes. Azula's hobbies were not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who had just eaten. Mai didn't figure into either of those categories, but was willing to be an honorary Big Eater for the time being in order to preserve her sanity.

Azula ignored the mats on the floor and remained standing with a military posture. "So, why are you sneaking in my brother's room? And it better not be because Ty Lee dared you."

Mai stared Azula right in the eyes. It wasn't because she felt confident about talking about these kinds of things, but rather that not staring Azula down might trigger her hunting instincts and lead to bothersome injuries. "Because I was interested in seducing him for myself."

Azula blinked. She twitched her nose, and then blinked again. "I don't get the joke, and since I'm the greatest intelligence the Fire Nation has ever produced, that must mean that your attempt at humor is flawed."

"It wasn't a joke. I seriously want to make out with your brother, and have for some time."

Azula blinked again. "I'm sorry, could I repeat that?"

"I said I want to make-"

"No, never mind, it turns out that once was gross enough." Azula let her gaze fall away, and began pacing across the room. "Let me make sure that I accurately understand what you're doing such an inefficient job of communicating. You have a romantic interest in Zuzu that you are actively pursuing with intentions of long-term enjoyment, and to this end you pushed the companion I hired for him out of a window to her death. Do I have all the facts straight?"

"Well, I didn't check that she was dead; she might simply lying out there with broken bones and a few ruptured organs. But otherwise, yeah."

Azula turned to face Mai with a brilliant smile. "I never knew romance could be so much fun! Carnal pleasure and intrigue and murder! I should really look into finding a lover at the first opportunity!" Azula's smile wavered. "So long as I don't have to let the boy touch me. That would be icky."

Mai decided that she very much had no comment on that. "So, we're good?"

"Good? Of course not!" Azula began pacing again. "While having one of my subordinates (or friends or whatever it's called) act as Zuko's distraction would be convenient, so long as you understand that your primary loyalty is to me, I need to make sure that you're up to the challenge, and that this won't interfere with your other duties. Are you prepared for an interview right now?"

"I have no idea, but I think the correct answer is yes."

"Perfect! Let me get some paper and a brush. Please, settle down at the table."

Mai kneeled at the parlor's table as instructed, and was soon joined by Azula. The princes set a piece of paper down perfectly centered on her side of the table, and wrote Mai's name at the top. "To start, why do you want to be with Zuko? Is your mother pressuring you into this?"

"Yes, my mother is pushing for it, but I'm acting on my own initiative. I'm attracted to Zuko, and decided to indulge myself on this."

"Hm, logical, and that's a point in favor of your mother. I'd be worried if she wasn't conspiring to somehow take advantage of the situation." Azula wrote something on her paper. "And when did this attraction-thing begin?"

Mai had to really think about this one. "I suppose it was the first time I visited the palace. Remember, you introduced me and Ty Lee to Zuko, and when he greeted us, I spontaneously lost my ability to speak for a week? I'm pretty sure that was because I was crushing on him. Or else it was the allergic reaction to the tick-wasp sting I got in the garden. But I definitely remember not knowing what to say to Zuko because I was so amazed by him."

Azula looked up sharply. "This is that? I thought that was because you had never seen a boy before. Surely by now you’ve seen what else that half of humanity has to offer."

Mai nodded. "As far as I can tell, what started as a blushing crush had evolved into a real desire to stick my tongue down his throat. I'm just as mystified by it as you are."

Azula's face went red, then pale, then red again. She looked down and began writing furiously.

On second thought, perhaps Azula was the more mystified one of the two, after all.

When the princess found her voice again, she said, "And what is your plan for implementation?"

"My what now?"

"This... what did you call it... seduction?" Azula's cheeks were almost as red as the flags draped around her room. "Does it involve... kissing?"

"Eventually, yes." Mai wasn't sure, but she couldn't shake the feeling that Azula was uncomfortable with this. But surely that couldn’t be. Azula would require empathy to be uncomfortable, and part of what made her so much fun was that she had either been born without empathy or had it removed at some early age. "My immediate plans were to spend enough time around Zuko until he started acting like a typical teenage boy, and then the kissing could start."

Azula wrote all of that down. "Very strategic of you. I approve. So you haven't kissed Zuzu yet."

"Not quite, no."

Azula was scribbling something. "So you don't know if he's a good kisser."

"Um, not yet."

Azula was still writing. "Do you think he might be a good kisser?"

"Uh… I don't even know what good kissing is."

"Hm." Azula finished writing and looked up. "Do you know how babies are made?"

Mai nearly choked over the change of subject. "Um, yes?"

"Ah. Good." Azula stared at Mai.

Mai stared back.

Azula kept staring.

Mai wondered what Azula was waiting for.

Finally, the princess sighed and made another note on her paper. "Very well. And how confident are you that you can get Zuko out of what Ty Lee would call a 'funky' and back to his usual annoying self?"

That was a very good question. If Mai was being truthful, Zuko's recent behavior had nearly left her in despair, but being truthful around Azula was a good way to end up violently inconvenienced. It was what Mai liked best about her. "Very confident. I just need to figure out how to get him over his stupid idea of staying in Ba Sing Se-"

"What?!"

Mai blinked. "Ah, you hadn't heard about that, huh?"

"Oh, for-" Azula pinched the bridge of her nose. "See, this is why I hired a companion for Zuzu! If he's left time enough to think for himself, there's no telling what kind of stupid ideas will take up residence in his head. It’s like Earth rebels holing up in a defensible position: difficult to dislodge without disproportionate expenditure of resources, and a big waste of everyone’s time. Fortunately, you have the greatest strategic mind on the planet on your side. I'll make sure that Zuzu is over the notion by lunch tomorrow. Then all you'll have to do is commence with this 'kissing' business, and all of our problems will be solved."

Azula stood up, and Mai figured that was the end of the interview and rose to her feet as well. She bowed to the princess, and Azula surprised her by actually bowing back. Then Azula added, "But don't think that I'm going to increase your pay for this."

"I get paid?"

"Forget I said anything." Azula waved the matter away. "Was that all?"

Mai thought about it. "I think so. I've explained by intentions, explained Zuko's problem, and you've been very helpful. I can't think of anything else there was to cover."

"Good, then I'll see you in the morning."




Outside, Jin was still in the crushed topiary when the sun rose.

It was the most painful sunrise she had ever experienced.

But the sunlight revealed that her knife had gone out the window with her, and was undamaged by the fall.

That was something she could work with.

TO BE CONTINUED
Death of a Thousand Cuts 3
Next: Death of a Thousand Cuts 4
Previous: Death of a Thousand Cuts 2

Written for Maiko Month 2014, back in May. For 27 of the 31 days of that month, I did a small entry in an ongoing Maiko story. The tale is a romantic comedy giving my take on how Mai and Zuko might have wound up as a couple between Books Earth and Fire. While each entry was published individually on other sites, for deviantArt I'm grouping them by in-story day to avoid blanketing my gallery in 30 small chapters.

The events of this story replace those of the official comic "Going Home Again," and likewise disregard any history between Mai and Zuko that was established by the comic. This isn't out of any problems with "Going Home Again" (I like it well enough), but simply because I think it suffers for being compressed to a small number of pages, and there's opportunity for a lot more fun in the start of Maiko.

Art by :iconmaivry:
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MAIKO MONTH 2014
DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS: THE SECOND DAY

08 - Dreams

It came to Azula in a dream.

Of course, that's not really what happened. Azula decided years ago to stop dreaming. It was pointless, at best highlighting mental concerns that a quick bit of self-analysis could pinpoint just as effectively, and at worst being silly. Instead, Azula had her brain apply itself, while she slept, to solving all the various problems she had not yet solved by the end of the day. Since she had already made some time in her schedule for her Fix Zuko project, his issues were at the top of the list for pondering, and as expected she had a solution by the time she woke up.

(Azula made a note to tell Zuko that while he had so much trouble with everything life threw at him, she could literally solve his problems in her sleep. He'd like that. Or growl and spit smoke, which was even better.)

The logical process spoke for itself. Zuko had everything he claimed he wanted, and yet he wasn't happy. Obviously, he was missing things from his old life that he was stupid for liking, and some simple substitutions could plug the gaps. He was missing Uncle, but only because Father was not yet in his life to tell him what to do all the time. To address that, Azula resolved to make more of Zuko's decisions for him until they got back home and Father could take over. He was also likely missing the chance to fight people, because that was how he worked out his frustrations, but Azula had seen his Firebending the day before, and she wasn't about to risk him on the front lines of the war. No, better to channel those urges elsewhere. But how?

The revelation came to Azula when she opened her eyes that morning, an answer both simple and effective. Zuko's opponents in his recent battles had been a young boy with a high-pitched voice, a Waterbender girl with big blue eyes, and Azula herself. Naturally, he needed a female in his life to kiss or argue with or whatever. That's why most people got married, after all. Azula herself was not about to volunteer for that duty, despite what the history books said her ancestors had gotten up to (she got queasy just thinking about it), so she had to find another girl, one with plenty of time to waste.

Azula resolved to speak to Li and Lo about taking out an advertisement in the local publications.




When Zuko woke up, he had to take a moment to remember what was real and what was a dream.

The defeat of the Avatar was real. (Probably. Katar- the Waterbender's magic water couldn't be that powerful.)

The conquest of Ba Sing Se was real.

Uncle- what had happened with Uncle was real.

Azula's offer was real. (Probably. She would have betrayed him by now if that was her plan, right?)

The restoration of Zuko's honor was... well, his worries about it were real, at least.

Mai was real.

Ty Lee's warning was real.

The dinner he shared with Mai last night was real.

His long search in the Earth Palace for Uncle and Mo- Mother, while Mai called from somewhere he couldn't see, was not real.

With that all established, Zuko had to decide what he wanted to do. He rose from bed and began his morning exercises, a routine that gave him time to... what was the word Azula used? Brood? No, that sounded immature. Ponder? Yes, Zuko pondered his situation. He had the possibility of being able to go home again, the possibility of becoming the Prince of destiny, and the possibility of a girl who liked him and could actually fit into his life. All of those possibilities, though, had great risks. Risk of getting home to find out that he'd been tricked, risk of having his destiny denied to him forever, and risk that letting Mai into his life would hurt her the same way it hurt... lots of people.

Yesterday, Zuko had been sure that he could solve these problems and eliminate the risks. His dream had given him an idea, but it, too, carried lots of risk.

He could just stay in Ba Sing Se, ruling the captured city as a representative of the Fire Nation. He could retain his title of Prince, because it was appropriate that someone so highly ranked would rule over the capital of the Fire Nation's greatest enemy. He wouldn't have to go home and risk Father's wrath, and could enjoy the benefits of having helped Azula against the Avatar without challenging the terms of his banishment. And maybe...

Maybe Mai would stay with him, at least for a while. If things didn't work out, she could always go home, and never have to worry about him again.

The more Zuko thought about it, the more it seemed like a good idea.




Mai had never liked mornings. She always had a hard time waking up, and the first few minutes of consciousness were swirled with the remnants of her dreams. It was an unpleasant blurring of what was real and what wasn't.

People like Ty Lee thought that sounded grand, but Mai was of the opinion that Ty Lee's mother had smoked too much mistweed, and Ty Lee's whole life was probably the result of a genetic addiction o some kind. (Mai was sure that genetic addictions were real things.) Mai's dreams, however, were usually nothing special, just incoherent weirdness and tritely psychological stuff like wearing balls and chains that spoke with the voices of her parents, and junk like that.

Last night had been of the same character, except this time it had featured Zuko and her falling into a giant pit full of soft apples that exploded and squished whenever they were so much as touched. She and Zuko had wound up sinking together into a vortex of sticky applesauce.

Mai had a dread suspicion that this dream, too, had been tritely psychological. She felt mildly scandalized by it.

While she dressed and got ready for Azula's stupid morning briefing meeting, Mai considered telling Zuko about her dream and seeing if he would laugh, blush, or both.




Ty Lee had woken up at the crack of dawn, shot out of bed with an energy that had bloomed within her the second she opened her eyes, and took a moment to giggle at her memories of her dreams before starting her morning exercises.

She had dreamed of pink elephants.

Pink elephants on parade!






09 - Reunion

Zuko sat through almost the whole morning briefing without hearing a word that the Firebender commander said. (Well, he did catch three words near the beginning, but "hog-monkey uprising" sent Zuko retreating back to his own thoughts.) He was too distracted by the idea of simply staying in Ba Sing Se when Azula and the others left, and it wasn't until the briefing was almost over that he realized that if he was going to rule Ba Sing Se, he probably should have been paying close attention to the briefing.

He restored his attention to its proper place just as the commander was bringing the meeting to a close. "Lastly, the expert consultant from New Ozai, the Deputy Governor, has arrived to advise our occupational government here. I've advised her that a preliminary meeting can be scheduled for today."

Zuko looked over at the girls. Ty Lee was napping, of course, while Azula was nodding as if she expected the news. Mai, however, was leaning forward with something that might have been interest, and her eyes were wide with surprise. Zuko wondered why, and resolved to ask her later.

For now, he said, "I'd like to meet with the consultant."

Azula and Mai whipped their heads around to look at him, both of saying, "Why?" Mai actually managed to be the squeakier-sounding of the two.

Zuko shrugged as nonchalantly as he could. "I'm a Prince of the Fire Nation, just like Azula is a Princess. I've been wasting my time, but I should start acting worthy of my station. I can handle the meeting with the consultant and brief her on what we're facing."

Mai was staring at him, and he almost thought he could see hurt in her eyes. Azula eyed him with her typical calculating expression, and turned to glance at Mai before facing Zuko again and giving a smile that sent shivers up his spine. "I don't suppose you got much news about New Ozai?"

"I-" No, this wasn't the time to lie. Azula would catch it. "No, I've never heard of it. But I'm sure anyone who works in a city named for Father must be quite capable."

Azula's smile turned into a toothy grin. "Indeed. Yes, Zuko, why don't you handle the preliminary meeting? Take Mai with you."

It felt like a lump of ice had suddenly sprang into being in Zuko's stomach (something that he was sure Katara was planning to do to him the next time she saw him). If Azula was so eager about this, it couldn't be good.

What had he walked into?




It wasn’t until Zuko was literally walking into the meeting room- once again, the same exact chambers where he and Uncle were supposed to pour tea down the Earth King's ashy throat, the same place where he and Mai had enjoyed their first conversation- that Mai finally explained what was going on. She started with a sigh. "You should know, New Ozai used to be Omashu. Azula renamed it when she picked me up to help chase down... everyone she was chasing down. And the reason I was there was because the governor is my father."

It was like the clouds had parted to reveal the sun, a sun with a smiling face that was ready to explain everything patiently in small sentences. Now Zuko understood why everyone was choking and grinning. Mai's father had sent the consultant, and Mai had father issues. He didn't know what Mai's specific issues were, but he was sure that issues did in fact exist between father and daughter. Everyone he knew had father issues.

"I understand," he said, and gave Mai a confident, understanding smile. He hadn't tried to smile that way since before Mother had... left, and he hoped it didn't look too scary. Mai just gave him a flat expression, and didn't say anything more as they knelt together on one side of the table in the center of the room.

Zuko turned to the servant at place by the door. "We are ready. Send our guest in."

The servant bowed, disappeared through the door, and then-

-and then a toddler with a single lock of black hair on his bulbous head came tearing through the door with a look of pure bliss on his face. "MAAAAIIIIIIII!!!" The child ran across the room, climbed up onto the table, and then literally launched himself at Mai's chest. She caught him deftly enough, her expression never changing.

Zuko blinked. "Um... who... ?"

"Oh, this little guy? He's just my illegitimate spawn."

"WHAT?!?!"

The child covered his ears and shouted back at Zuko, "I gitty mit spawns!"

Mai's mouth quirked in a smile. "Sorry, couldn't resist. This is actually my little brother. You've never met him."

All at once, Zuko could breathe again. He grabbed for the cup of tea that a servant was placing down on the table and took a swig. He needed some calming influence after... that.

Mai continued, "The timing of his birth suggests that my parents celebrated your banishment a little too vigorously.

Zuko chocked on the tea and spat it out all over the table.

It was into this scene that the consultant from New Ozai entered. "Oh, I see Tom-Tom found you. Hello, daughter." Mai gave a half-hearted wave. The child- Tom-Tom- waved much more enthusiastically.

Zuko said a quick chant begging the Agni Warrior to share some of his dragon-strength. Mai's mother?! He quickly wiped the tea dripping off of his chin and stood. "Uh, welcome to Ba Sing Se. I am Prince Zuko."

"Yes, dear, I recognize you." Mai's mother- ashes, what was her name? Zuko wasn't sure if he had ever heard it. He didn't want to sound like an idiot by asking. Bereft of a name in Zuko's thoughts, Mai's Mother kneeled down on the other side of the table. "I'm so happy you're no longer a dishonorable savage forced to wander the Earth. I always said you were such a nice young boy."

"Er, yes. I mean, thank you." If this was what diplomacy was, Zuko wasn't sure that ruling Ba Sing Se for Father was such a good idea. "So, you're here as a consultant?"

"Oh, yes. Thank you for reminding me, dear. As I'm sure you're aware, Ba Sing Se is the most important conquest in all the war. Everyone wants things to go smoothly, here. And since New Ozai is the Fire Nation's most recent hostile enemy acquisition, the leadership back in the Fire Nation thought that we might have some good information and experience to share with you."

Mai shifted Tom-Tom in her lap so that she could look at her mother. "Didn't you and dad lose complete control of Omashu and let the entire population walk out of the city to set up an insurgency in the hostile terrain surrounding your position?"

"Yes, of course. Thus we know a lot about what not to do, and I'm happy to share that with your own ruler. Tell me, when will I be meeting with Princess Azula?"

Zuko cleared his throat. "Actually, I intend to start taking on more of the leadership duties here in the city."

Mai turned to stare at him. "You do?"

Tom-Tom followed her gaze and pointed at Zuko’s face. "Why him ugly?"

Mai's Mother gasped. "Tom-Tom, that's rude! You're not supposed to ask people why they're ugly." She gave Zuko a quick smile. "My apologies, Your Royal Highness. He's just a child, and doesn't know what he's saying." She looked back at her son. "Prince Zuko is ugly because he was bad and his daddy had to punish him."

Tom-Tom squealed and grabbed his face. "I good!"

"Yes, you are. And Prince Zuko has grown into a very nice young man."

"Yes," Mai said softly, "he has."

Her mother leaned forward. "Oh, really? Does that mean-"

Zuko stood up. "Well, this has been a great... introduction? Yes. We'll let you get settled in your rooms, and then I'm sure you have much advice to share with me and Azula. We'll bring in the military commanders, too. Thank you."

Then he made another one of those socially acceptable retreats he was getting good at.




Mai watched Zuko run away like a scared child, and then passed Tom-Tom back over the table to Mother. "Well, great, thanks for that. How long will you be staying? A few hours, hopefully."

Mother smiled. "As long as you're here in Ba Sing Se, I will be, too. And don’t slouch; it makes you look like a drooping willow with bark-rot."






11 - Sunlight

It was late in the spring, and Ba Sing Se had been dealing with something of a heat-wave for as long as the Fire Nation had been in control of it. Mai wasn't sure if this was because of something the Fire Lord had actually arranged or it was just terrifying serendipity, and the fact that she was actually wondering this at all disturbed her to no end. Mother, of course, just saw it as a good reason to take dinner out on one of the Earth Palace's garden patios, under the cloudless sky and shining sun.

It would have caused trouble to refuse Mother's company at dinner, and while Mai normally rather liked trouble, she preferred the kind that came from blades and enemy assassins and leaping fights on fragile scaffolding. Family trouble, in comparison, wasn't any fun at all. Mai, however, refused to surrender completely, so even though she was out there on the patio with the rest of them, she had brought a servant to shield her from the sunlight with an umbrella.

"That's a really good idea," Ty Lee said from beside Mai, as she eyed the servant with one of those heavy-lidded looks that undoubtedly made her so popular at the circus. "I should get some servants to shade me, too."

"Servants are a big responsibility," Mai retorted. "You have to walk them, and feed them, and chase after them when they run away."

Mother rolled her eyes. "Oh, Mai, stop being so silly."

"Mai silly!" Tom-Tom squealed, clapping his hands. Ty Lee giggled at his antics, and began clapping her hands in time with his. Tom-Tom got a big grin when he noticed this, and clapped his hands even faster. Ty Lee put on a grin that was a disturbing match to his, and both of them descended into a clapping fit that only petered out when both of them started laughing too hard to do anything else. When he could breathe again, Tom-Tom babbled, "Tlee good sister!"

Mai rolled her eyes.

Mother gave Tom-Tom a pat on the head. "No, dear, Ty Lee isn't your sister. Ty Lee is just Mai's friend."

"No! Tlee sister!"

Mai snorted. "I think I've been replaced."

"Don't worry, Mai, I'd never replace you!" Ty Lee reached over, completely forgetting about her dinner, and took Tom-Tom to sit in her lap. "But I'd be happy to be his honorary sister! I've always thought a brother would be better than all my sisters, and then you and I can be honorary sisters, too! It's perfect!"

"Wee, my family just keeps on growing." Mai returned her attention to her dumplings, but felt some heat on her head and turned to find that her servant had let the umbrella drift while he watched Tom-Tom climb up onto Ty Lee's head. "Hey, bring that shade back. You're not here to be entertained."

Mother watched long enough to make sure that Ty Lee wasn't going to let Tom-Tom fall, and then turned to look at Mai, bringing the respite to a sad close. "It's a shame the Prince and Princess couldn't join us for dinner, hm?"

Mai popped a dumpling into her mouth and gave a dismissive wave. "Azula’s preoccupied this evening with some secret personal project, Zuko never eats with us. He's too busy."

"Doing what?"

Mai wondered how she could phrase it so that it didn't sound like he was out of his mind with anxiety. "Cultivating... inner peace?"

Mother frowned. "Is that a euphemism for something scandalous?"

"Bwah!" The dumpling Mai had just swallowed caught her throat, and she had to pound her chest to dislodge it. "Mother! Zuko is nice."

Ty Lee giggled, although whether it from Mai's conversation or the way Tom-Tom was wrapping her braid around his own head was an open question. "Zuko's our friend, but I don't think I'd call him nice."

Mother turned to look at the acrobat, and Mai could see a subtle transformation in her demeanor. She was still graceful and smiling, but there was an edge to her expression and motion that Mai usually only saw in a mirror. "Oh, really?"

"Yeah, Zuko's been kind of cranky. His aura is all black and he's become an unhealthy void pulling on everyone around him." Ty Lee shrugged. "He's dangerously out of balance."

Mother blinked. "Um, well, yes, I'm sure he is." She shook her head. "But he's not seeing anyone?"

"Mother!"

"What? Boys will be boys, Mai, but if you two are serious about being together, he's going to have to learn to give you priority."

Ty Lee's back suddenly went straight, and Tom-Tom tumbled down from her had to land her lap. "You and Zuko are getting together?!"

"Ty Lee!"

"Mai getty Zu," Tom-Tom squealed.

"Tom-Tom," Mai and Mother hissed simultaneously. They looked at each other, and Mai slumped in her shady seat while Mother continued, "Is there a problem with that, Ty Lee?"

"Wellll... I warned Mai that Zuko isn't really ready for a healthy relationship. Since Mai is new to this kind of thing, I'm worried she'll get herself hurt. You know how it is when girls get their hearts set on a prince who doesn't turn out to be all that princely?"

Mother actually smiled. "Only too well. But it's all part of growing up."

"No, I can't believe that." Ty Lee shook her head, sending her braid wagging, and Tom-Tom grabbed for it unsuccessfully. "Love is supposed to be a good thing, and a relationship that's hurtful will poison your spirit and keep you from ever really knowing love! It's like... it's like living so long in the dark that your eyes can't stand the sunlight anymore!"

Mother gave a chuckle. "Ah, Ty Lee, you're such a dear. I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but there's no such thing as a relationship that doesn't hurt. Even the people who live together in the dark can enjoy the sunlight that filters through screens and windows, but those who spend all their time outdoors with no protection will find that the sun simply burns their skin." She waved a hand at the servant standing beside Mai with the umbrella. "My daughter has been raised properly, and even though she's a dour spirit who sometimes needs her attitude adjusted-"

"Thanks, Mother."

"-she's still smart enough understand the benefits of shade."

Ty Lee and Mother actually glared at each other, but Mai wasn't interested in anything more they had to say to each other. She got up, grabbed Tom-Tom from Ty Lee's lap, and made her way back inside.






12 - Mask

Azula set her latest set of notes aside and got a clean sheet of paper. Once it was perfectly centered on the desk in front of her, she looked up at Li and Lo. "You can send the next one in, now." The old women bowed their acknowledgement, and backed out of the office.

So far, Azula was disappointed in the quality of the applicants. When she had put out her advertisements for a female companion for Zuzu, she had of course expected all kinds of gold-diggers to come applying for the position, as well as weak-willed opportunists who wanted to 'prove' how loyal they were to Ba Sing Se's new Fire Nation occupiers. However, she had at least expected some kind of personality in the applicants, not an endless parade of simpering ninnies who Zuko would be hard-pressed to notice through his perpetual personal angst. Perhaps she shouldn't have had an artist's sketch of Zuzu's face included in the ad? That might have turned off any women who actually wanted to look at the boy with whom they were spending time. Azula had heard of the prior day's meeting between Zuzu and Mai's mother, and how Mai's little brother had called the prince "ugly." Azula had laughed long and hard at that, but then realized that if Zuzu scared babies, it was going increase the difficulty of finding a properly hostile girl for him.

Still, Azula had not yet given up. If there had been some middling possibilities among the applicants thus far, she would be despairing, but a complete lack of suitable applicants, after so many hours of interviewing? Those were long odds, and Azula always won when she went for the long shot.

The next girl shuffled into the office, and Azula had to hold back a sigh. This one was just as wary and skittish as the others, and as an added complication, her robe looked like it had been passed down through a long dynasty of beggars. Still, Azula wasn't shopping for a wife for Zuko or anything like that, so low-birth wasn't really a disqualifier. Yet. "Yes, come in. I'm royalty, so you should also bow. Um, forehead to the floor, I'm a Princess. Good, you may rise. Now, what's your name?"

The girl kneeled across the desk from Azula, and ran a hand over her bristly ponytail in a pathetic nervous gesture. "Um, I'm Jin."

"Hello, Jin." Azula wrote down the name. "Now, do you understand exactly what this position calls for?"

"N- no, not really. Like, I'm supposed to spend time with some prince?"

Azula frowned, and made a note that this girl had come to the interview completely unprepared. "Well, Jin, that's correct in a general sense, but it doesn't speak well of you that you didn't exhaustively research this opportunity before applying. The Prince in question is my brother, and he needs someone with the vision to keep him on track. A girl who's smart and opportunistic. A girl who can see all the possibilities in a situation, evaluate them on the fly, and pick the best from amongst them. A girl who understands his weaknesses and can-" Azula frowned. She was rambling, wasn't she? And not saying anything particularly useful. "Well, never mind."

Jin raised a hand. "Can I ask a question?"

"You may."

"Thanks. So, um, by 'companion,' do you, like, want a wife for your brother?"

"No, this is a temporary position. Ideally, my brother will eventually straighten out his life to the point where I will have the time and energy to manage it for him. If not, then I can find a suitable wife for him amongst the Fire Nation nobility. Still, this is a job that could last some years. Are you able to leave home and come to the Fire Nation with us?"

"Yeah, that's fine." Jin wrung her hands together. "So, um, will the companionship be... like, romantic, or is this just a friends-type thing?"

Azula wasn't sure what she was more disturbed by, the thought of this trash getting cozy with Zuko, or her tortured sentence structure. "I'll leave that as an on-the-job tactical decision." She briefly massaged her forehead. "You need to understand, your primary role will be as a distraction for Zuko. He's alone with all his anxieties, and has no outlet for them. If you can solve that by kissing him all the time, then so be it. If you have to develop a rivalry, either intellectually or physically, that's fine, too. Whatever form it takes, I need you to be a presence in my brother's life, not just a toy he comes home to at the end of the day. Do you understand?"

Jin nodded. "I getcha."

Azula wrote down that Jin understood, but also that she used the word 'getcha' in speech. "Wonderful. Tell me, do you have experience being a companion?"

Jin blinked. "Um, not professionally? I've always had lots of friends." A smile grew on the girl's face. "And I've had a few boyfriends, you know?"

"I see. And can you provide references?"

"Well, your brother is kinda one of them. You can ask him."

Azula was right in the middle of writing down Zuzu as one of the girl’s references before the full import of the statement hit her. It slammed into her with the force of one of her father's punishments, back when Azula was weak enough to earn punishments. "I beg your pardon?"

"Your brother? Zuko's his name, right? I took him out on a date." Jin stared back with honest, open eyes.

Azula blinked. "You know Zuko?"

"Yeah. Well, not by that name. He told me it was Lee. And his Uncle was Mushi."

"wut"

Jin's smile turned positively cat-like. "Sure, they were living in the Lower Ring for a while. Lee worked at a tea shop in my neighborhood, and eventually I got him out on a date." Her smile waved for a moment. "It didn't really end well, but that wasn't my fault."

Azula felt laughter bubbling up within her. Zuzu had gone on a date with a peasant girl? That was the most delightful thing she had ever heard. And now this girl was here, applying for the job of Zuzu's companion? Azula couldn't have planned this better. "And you recognized his face in my advertisement."

"Yeah. It's pretty distinctive. But not bad-looking, you know?"

Azula almost nodded. "Well, this changes the situation. But you say the date ended badly?"

Jin leaned forward. "Well. See, it was going pretty well. Lee was a dork, but I kind of like dorks. It's cute, and he was trying so hard! But then my plans for the date fell through, but he suddenly got so suave and romantic, and fixed it somehow." She frowned and tapped her chin. "Now that I think about, I should have been more suspicious about how he could light that many candles across such a large space so quickly. Anyway, that's when I kissed him."

"You kissed him?!" Azula wrote that down. "What was it like? Was he a good kisser?"

"Kind of? He wasn't, like, taking the lead or anything, but he was good. Sincere, you know?"

Azula did not know, but she wrote all of that down anyway. "And then what?"

"Well, I think that's why he'd give me a good reference. He said things were too complicated, and he ran away. Boys don't do that if they don't like you, you know?"

Azula wrote that down, too. "Go on."

"So, like, he was obviously afraid of being an evil Fire Nation infiltrator sent to help take over the city, right? But if that wasn't in the way, we could be together. So, here I am."

"I see." Azula finished making her notes. "And that's why you've come. To try again with Zuko."

"Sure."

"So you wouldn't mind if we don't pay you?"

"I was going to get paid?"

Azula made a note of that. Then a horrifying thought occurred to her. "You're not... with child, are you? Zuko's child?"

Jin paled. "What?! It was just a kiss!"

"That's a no?"

"Babies don't come from kisses!"

Azula wrote that down. "Very well." She put her brush down, and sat back to really examine Jin. "Do you know what I think?"

Jin quirked her head. "Um, no?"

"Of course you don't." Azula brought her hands together and steepled her fingers, the way Grandfather used to when he was annoyed. "I think you're a liar. Yes, you might have had this 'date' experience with my brother, but that's as far as it goes. You're not here to get more kisses from Zuko."

Jin slumped, and offered something like a smile. "Okay, you got me. I'm really hoping for... you know, true love and stuff with a Prince. I'm deeply in love with him, and I'm hoping he'll choose to stay with me forever instead of marrying a cold noblewoman."

Azula smiled. "That's cute. No, you're still lying. You're exploiting an opportunity, and just as coldly as any noblewoman I've ever met. Even the most besotted peasant girls don't spend the money for a train ride from the Lower Ring to the Upper Ring just on the hope of love. Besides, there's no passion in your voice, even when you talk about... doing things with... my brother."

Jin crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm not trying to marry him for his money!"

"Of course not. You didn't ask about the pay, and a girl chasing her dreams like this wouldn't betray her nation so blithely; she would be maintaining a fantasy about seducing the enemy prince to her side so that he could liberate the city, or something equally inane. No, you're obviously an assassin."

All the color drained from Jin's face.

Azula continued, "You recognized Zuzu in my ad, brought your past with him to the attention of some local rebel groups, and they ordered you to come here as an assassin. If you got the job, you would kill Zuko and then as many of us as you could, and if not, then you would at least have a shot at him here. They furnished you with the train fare, as well as the knife up your left sleeve- a short butterfly sword, if I'm not mistaken. Sadly, they didn't provide you with any training; that much is evident in the way you walk. Thus, your mission was a failure before it even began."

Jin sprang up, yanked the knife out of her sleeve, and lunged for Azula.

Expecting the move, Azula rose smoothly, reached around the blade to grab Jin's wrist, and twisted it. She didn't apply any real strength to the maneuver, but the angle put enough pressure on Jin's poor grip to make her drop the weapon. Then Azula let go with a throwing motion that sent Jin plopping back down into her kneeling position.

Azula calmly kneeled again. "As I was saying, you're perfect for the job. You have romantic tension with Zuzu, but you're also an assassin looking to end his life. Whether he takes pleasure in your company or simply spends his time dodging your pathetic attempts to kill him, he'll finally get his mind off of his anxieties. Is that a satisfactory arrangement?"

Jin was breathing hard, but she struggled to remain calm in the face of her failure. "Are you serious?"

"Of course."

"You're not going to have me killed?"

"I could do it right now if I really wanted to end your life. It wouldn't be a bother."

"And you're not going to make guards watch me around your brother or anything?"

"A little threat of death is exactly what he needs."

Jin's eyebrows scrunched together. "Are you trying to get your brother out of the way?"

Azula smiled. "Remember what I said about doing my own killing? That goes for family, too."

"You're crazy, lady."

"So they say. And you will address me as 'Princess.' I wouldn't expect you to know this, but a Lady is a lower rank in the Fire Nation. So, will you accept the job?"

Jin looked like she was expecting Azula to change her mind and kill her at any moment. Which, of course, was entirely reasonable. It seemed that the girl could learn. Finally, she said, "I guess?"

"Wonderful. Li and Lo will get you settled. Welcome to the staff, Miss Jin." Azula smirked. "This is where you bow, again."

TO BE CONTINUED
Death of a Thousand Cuts 2
Next: Death of a Thousand Cuts 3
Previous: Death of a Thousand Cuts 1

Written for Maiko Month 2014, back in May. For 27 of the 31 days of that month, I did a small entry in an ongoing Maiko story. The tale is a romantic comedy giving my take on how Mai and Zuko might have wound up as a couple between Books Earth and Fire. While each entry was published individually on other sites, for deviantArt I'm grouping them by in-story day to avoid blanketing my gallery in 30 small chapters.

The events of this story replace those of the official comic "Going Home Again," and likewise disregard any history between Mai and Zuko that was established by the comic. This isn't out of any problems with "Going Home Again" (I like it well enough), but simply because I think it suffers for being compressed to a small number of pages, and there's opportunity for a lot more fun in the start of Maiko.

Art by :iconmaivry:
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MAIKO MONTH 2014
DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS: THE FIRST DAY

01 - Wanderlust

Zuko was lost, even though he knew exactly where he was.

Restlessness drove him into motion, sending him stalking the halls of the Earth Palace. He supposed that his sister would rename it soon, what with the Fire Nation having conquered Ba Sing Se and the palace itself. Azula would probably call it something that would honor their father and that would just make everyone back in the Fire Nation love her even more, if anything could add to the prestige of capturing the Earth Kingdom's last stronghold and killing the Avatar.

And that was why Zuko was lost. It had been his mission to capture the Avatar. It was supposed to be him winning honor and redemption by helping to capture Ba Sing Se. He was supposed to be the one finally getting a smile from Father. Instead, all he had were dead dreams and an uncle who wouldn't talk to him. Zuko didn't even know if it was possible for him to return to the Fire Nation, now. Azula said he could, once they were done cracking down on Ba Sing Se, but if Father disapproved, she wouldn't hesitate to deny all her promises and send him off to wander the world forever.

The thought of such a betrayal made Zuko snarl and pump a blast of fire through his fists. The flames were weak and dissipated as soon as they touched the air, but a passing servant still squawked with fear and hurried away.

Great. Now no one in the palace would want to be near him.

He was alone.

Wandering.

Lost.



Lust.

Mai almost smiled once she identified exactly what she was feeling. It was lust, for the first time in her depressingly boring fifteen years of life. Watching Zuko stomp through the hallways from the one of the palace's many shadowy corners, Mai's pulse was quickened, her attention was rock solid despite having no one to fight, her mood was not bad for a change, and she kept having strangely compelling thoughts about how nice it would be to rest in a pair of manly arms and press her skin to his (starting with hands and then progressing to faces, if she was feeling especially wild. Maybe she’d even take off her outer layers of robes and show off her arms).

Lust. Before now, Mai had been convinced that it was a myth perpetrated by teenagers who wanted a biological excuse for doing exactly what their parents told them not to do.

Now it was the call for strategy.

It briefly occurred to Mai to ignore her own desires, as she often did, in order to avoid the complications that would come along for the ride. Azula would have an opinion on Mai going after her brother, of course, as would Mai's own family, although the worst they could do was simply disapprove while Azula was prone to murder when upset. If things with Zuko didn't end quickly, she would inevitably come to the attention of all the political players back in the Capital, and that would lead to more complications. Perhaps even the Fire Lord would actually bother to learn her name and that no, she wasn't the pink one who did cartwheels. The worst case scenario was that those old gasbags Li and Lo would try to give her The Talk, which would break Mai's mind in more ways than one.

She had no reason, other than this strange urge, to pay any attention to Zuko, and every reason not to. Acting on her lust would be risking complications.

Mai grinned.

Risk was the opposite of boring.

A mind that could keep track of 800 moving objects at once and compute their direction of travel in less than a second began applying its faculties to the task of getting a boy to like her. And not just any boy- Zuko.

This would take more than just a smile and some perfume.

Fortunately, when Mai's interest was up, she could be very patient.

Her thoughts whirling with plans, Mai wandered away and left Zuko to his sexy sulking.






02 - Dare

Zuko tried to take pleasure in the morning briefings, but something about them just depressed him.

Seated behind Azula in her makeshift office, he listened as a Firebender commander droned on about the Fire Army's progress over the last day in pacifying Ba Sing Se. "...our forces surrounded the 'Earthbender Underground,' and then the Dai Li attacked and captured all resistance fighters after they tried to go- er, underground. The weapons-collection program we've implemented in the Lower Ring is proceeding at the expected pace with minimal casualties for us, mostly in the way of severed hands, and..."

Azula kept nodding with satisfaction at the news, and Zuko tried to look just as lively, but he had trouble with it, even aside from his usual lack of liveliness. He couldn't stop remembering his time living in the Lower Ring. It had been dirty and cramped, everything smelled like an ancient outhouse, and he actually had to work for money, but in retrospect, the people hadn't been all that bad. And he hadn’t been alone, at least.

Beside Zuko, Ty Lee was nodding off and making little not-quite-snoring sounds, while his sister's other goon Mai was as still and lifeless as a statue. He wished he could be as nonchalant about all this as the girls. At last, the commander finished his report, bowed, and got on his with his busy day of subjugating people. Zuko immediately stood up and had every intention of starting his own heavy schedule of wandering around and snarling at people when a shadow rose to block his way.

It was Mai.

She stared at him with dead eyes. "I’ll be taking tea this afternoon."

Zuko blinked. Was that some kind of military code? Or a political thingy, one of those metaphors? "Okay."

"You should join me."

Zuko looked around. Azula was flipping through a stack of reports, and Ty Lee was slowly toppling out of her chair while snoring happily. There didn't seem to be anything else going on, so Mai probably wasn't trying to distract him from an assassination attempt. Could Ty Lee have dared Mai to spend time with the dishonorable, monster-faced exile? Or maybe she was being serious? "Join you for tea?"

"Yes."

"Okay?"

"Good. See you there." She turned around and left the office.

Zuko once again looked over at Azula, to make sure she wasn't smirking triumphantly or anything suspicious like that, but she seemed engrossed in something with the phrase 'Accidental Hair-Related Burn Report' in big characters at the top. This probably wasn’t anything she had arranged, then, otherwise she'd be actively controlling every step and making sure Mai stayed on script. So perhaps it really was a dare from Ty Lee.

Or maybe Mai actually wanted to have tea with him.

He couldn't imagine why.



At tea hour, Zuko arrived promptly in the same room where he and Uncle were supposed to serve the Jasmine Dragon's finest brew to the Earth King himself. Zuko was half-expecting to once again find Azula waiting for him with an assassination squad, but the only person in the room was Mai. She was kneeling at a low table that had already been laid out with a full service set. That was fairly elaborate for making good on a dare.

Maybe, just maybe, she wanted to have tea with him.

She looked up at the sound of his footsteps, and nodded with what Zuko hoped was approval. "I'm glad you came."

He gave his own nod, and knelt down on the opposite side of table while Mai poured him a cup. She seemed to be skipping the ceremony that went with formal tea events, which was fine with Zuko. He never understood all the reverence for hot leaf juice, anyway.

He sipped from his cup, and Mai did the same.

He looked at Mai, and she looked back with eyes that had no shine.

Zuko took another sip.

Mai sipped her own tea.

Zuko looked around. The oppressive silence prompted him to say, "This is actually a very nice room." Mai nodded as if that wasn't an utterly inane observation, so he added, "I'm glad that Azula had it cleaned up after our fight. You know, from all the fire."

Mai nodded again. "It's good to clean up fire damage. It makes everything smell like smoke." She took another sip of tea. She was very graceful about it, in a way that reminded him of his mother. Mai had very much grown into a proper lady while Zuko was away, aside from her tendency to stab people. She had also grown dark and sharp and intriguing in ways that very much did not remind Zuko of his mother, and also made him feel a little funny inside.

“Yeah,” he forced himself to say. Zuko knew it was now his responsibility to add something to keep the conversation alive, but his wits were failing him. Did that mean he had killed the conversation, or was Mai at fault for not giving him enough to work with?

At last, Mai drained the last of her cup and brought it back down to the table with finality. "Thanks for joining me. This was fun."

Fun? Fun! That meant that he won! Victim of a dare or not, Zuko had just successfully completed a conversation about something other than capturing Avatars! That was the first time in his entire life! Ha, this wasn't hard. He was so excited, he almost forgot to reply, "Oh, uh, thanks for inviting me. I had fun, too."

Then he retreated before he said something stupid.



Mai was tempted to do a victory dance, but that would have been something like work, so she just sighed triumphantly instead. That had worked out well. One social meeting down, 999 to go, and then Zuko would be acclimated enough to her company to agree to things like kissing and cuddling and hunting down rebels together.

She had no idea why other girls fretted about this dating thing. It was actually really easy.

And for once in Mai's life, it had been worth it to dare.






04 - Youth

Ty Lee walked into the suite she was sharing with Mai, and couldn't help but notice that her friend's aura was a light, bright pink.

What in the name of Sozin's glorious glutes was that about?

Ty Lee watched as Mai went about her nightly routine of sharpening every single one of her many-many knives, and had to admit that there was nothing unusual about her physical form. As usual, Mai's face was blank and her eyes were death. Every motion showed off her signature blend of apathetic grace, and she sat with a straight back that would make any mother proud. And yet Mai's aura was glowing so brightly that Ty Lee was tempted to shield her eyes.

It only took her a second to realize why this might be, and when the thought popped into her brain like fireworks at festival, Ty Lee immediately ran over to her friend and perpetrated a leaping tackle hug. "Oh Mai I'm so happy for you!"

"Bwah?"

"I was worried for so long that you were going to waste your whole youth on knives and sour expressions!"

"Bwah?"

"Who is it? You have to tell me! Is he a good kisser? Did you kiss him? Did he kiss you? When's the wedding?"

"Bwah?"

Ty Lee finally released Mai from the hug and gave her most encouraging smile. "Come on, you can tell me! This is what young women like us do when one has a new boyfriend!"

Mai resisted the power of Encouraging Smile #6 and took her time straightening her robes and picking up the knives she had dropped on the floor. Ty Lee waited patiently, because this was just too juicy to be impatient over, and was finally rewarded when Mai sighed and said, "Who said anything about a boyfriend?"

"Your aura did." Ty Lee winked. "And it's being pretty loud about it."

Mai sniffed dismissively. "I don't believe in auras, and even if I did, I doubt they would enunciate very clearly."

"It's okay, Mai." Ty Lee grabbed her friend's hands and gave them a squeeze. "You're young and inexperienced, so it's natural to be scared of talking about this type of thing. But I'm not going to judge you! I'm happy that you're happy, and I want to help you be even happier."

Mai's eyes narrowed.

Ty Lee shrugged. "Well, let's face it; you probably have a million things you need to ask me."

"Ha. I'm capable of handling things I want on my own, thank you."

"Ah, so you do have a boyfriend!"

Mai's grimace briefly turned her aura a brownish yellow. "Shut up."

"You might as well tell me." Ty Lee released Mai's hands and grinned. "Making me trick it out of you will just take longer."

"Fine." Mai gave one of her favorite sighs: Defeated #9, if Ty Lee had it right. "It's Zuko, but he's not my boyfriend yet."

Ty Lee noticed her own aura turn muddy blue, and she knew she had to take immediate action to get it back to a healthier soft shade. "Zuko? Oh, Mai, that's not going to work out at all."

Mai's eyebrows rose and her glare made Ty Lee want to inch away. "What happened to being happy for me?"

"I'm still happy for you! It's just- Well, I know you've always liked Zuko, and it's good that you're finally coming into your own as a young woman and exploring your wants and stuff, but Zuko isn't the best choice for ultimate contentment." Ty Lee saw that Mai still wasn't getting it, so she added, "He's fine for a roll in the hay, but he's not really boyfriend material."

Mai's face scrunched up. "Why would I want to roll in hay? That sounds filthy."

Ty Lee's aura swirled, mixing muddy shades with lighter ones, and she took a moment to get her thoughts all together. Azula and Mai were good at thinking about their thoughts and getting them ready to be said out loud, but Ty Lee needed to put some effort and extra thought into thinking her thoughts thoughtfully. Finally, she ventured, "Zuko's in a troubled place, Mai. His aura is completely black, and that means he's draining the energy of everyone around him. Have you seen the way he's always walking around?"

"Of course." Mai's face gave a brief twitch. "I haven't been stalking him, though."

"Well, that's the thing. It's fine to look at him, because wow, I didn't think a facial scar could make someone hotter, but I'd say yes if he wanted- but my point is that as a partner, he's not ready for a real relationship. He can't be the kind of person who can help a girl grow up into a confident young woman. He'll let his troubles make him hurt you, and you'll have to be mature enough to walk away if you don't want to get dragged down with him."

Mai blinked. "Ty, I have no idea what you're talking about." She sighed, a Courage Building #3 that Mai used all the time when talking about something serious. "Look, I'm not stupid like all those dippy girls. I've thought about this. I've thought about Zuko as a person. And I'm not fooling myself that this is grand love or anything pointless like that. I- I just like being near Zuko. I like when he acts like a goofball because he can't think of anything to say. So since I have the time, I'm doing what I like. And Zuko's just messed up because General Iroh betrayed him, and he's going home for the first time since that jer- since the Fire Lord- since- you know. Once he realizes that things will be okay and that he and I can do whatever it is young people do who like each other, he'll be fine." Mai blinked again. "Or as fine as people get in the Royal Family. So everything is going to be okay, right?"

Oh, dear.

Oh, oh, oh, oh, dear.

Ty Lee wouldn't have expected it from Mai of all people, but there it was: Mai thought she was going to change the troubled sexy guy, and that she wasn't really risking anything important by offering herself to him. Mai was being shortsighted. And dumb. And young.

Good thing Ty Lee was here.

She said, "Right," and hugged her friend, all the while thinking about how she could fix things and make sure that no one got seriously hurt.






04 - Sinner

When Zuko went to sleep that night, he was still in a good mood from having successfully been sociable with someone who had no reason to like him. He had barely gotten into a doze, though, before he was startled awake to find Ty Lee on top of him.

She was crouched with her face so close to his that he could feel her breath on his unscarred skin. (She smelled like mountain peaches.) Her eyes were also terrifyingly bright in the moonlight. Zuko started to demand an explanation, but before he could make a sound Ty Lee clamped a hand down on his mouth and somehow cut off all the airflow in his body. She moved to whisper, "Don't scream," in his ear.

Screaming was no longer part of Zuko's intentions.

He had progressed to planning a Firebending assault.

The assassination attempt he had been dreading had finally come! Azula had sent her most reliable lackey to get him out of the way so that she could hog all of Father's respect for herself. Mai must have also been part of it, maybe distracting him and putting him at ease so that he wouldn't suspect- no, they had taken tea together, and she had already brewed it when he arrived, and oh, ashes, he drank it and it was probably poisoned and now Ty Lee was here to do... something really awful and then Azula would kill Uncle and-

Zuko realized that Ty Lee was smiling at him, a smile that didn't seem to be promising death. (Zuko knew about smiles that made promises. Zhao couldn't smile any other way, and Azula had been practicing them since before she had all her teeth.) She pulled away from him slightly, and whispered, "Good. Nice and quiet. I'll let go, and light a lantern, and we can talk like friends, because we kind of are, don’t you think? Then I'll leave and you can go back to bed and have happy dreams. Doesn't that sound nice?"

Although he wasn’t so sure that he had such a thing as friends, Zuko had to admit that her plan was better than being assassinated by someone wearing a pink circus costume, so he nodded.

Ty Lee let go of his mouth and climbed off of him, and then fulfilled her promise by getting the lamp from his desk on the far side of the room and offering it for him to light. It took just one finger and an exercise of will to bend a small flame that gave life to the lamp, and Zuko was able to relax even further with the confirmation that Mai hadn't slipped him any Firebending-dampening drugs. As long as everything was okay, he decided that he was willing to play along and so whispered his first question: "Why are you in my bedroom in the middle of the night?"

Ty Lee sat down on the bed and shrugged. "I wanted to talk before we got all involved in Azula's briefing meeting, and I'm never on time for those things."

Zuko found himself pinching the bridge of his nose. "And what's so important that it couldn't wait until after the meeting?"

"Well, Mai likes you, and before you two ran into each other again I wanted to warn you to stay away from her or else. Not in a mean way, though."

Both "Mai likes you" and "or else" bounced around in Zuko's head with competing urgency, but his mind proved itself worthy and picked a response that would cover both topics: "What?!"

"Not so loud," she hissed.

Zuko had an odd urge to apologize, which he put down to the shock. "When you say 'likes,' do you mean that Mai... is in love with me?"

Ty Lee giggled. "People really like to say ‘love,’ but it’s not that common. Mai doesn’t love you, yet; I think she's just hot for you. You know, staring at your lips, eyeing your butt, thinking your hair is nice, that kind of thing. My mom always said love is the prize at the end of getting married and having five kids together."

Zuko felt his face warming. It just wasn't possible that a woman would- no, there was Jin, as misguided as she was. But Mai? He didn't know her very well, and that was partly because she was so unlike Jin. Mai was quiet. Zuko had known her since she was six and he was seven, and he didn't think they had spoken to each other more than a handful of times in all those years. Mai was the watchful type, and her growing aptitude with throwing knives was a good reflection for her frosty personality. At least Ty Lee had always spared a hello for him when they ran into each other. Mai wouldn't even meet his eyes.

But she had changed. She had talked with him over tea this afternoon. Zuko himself was a much different person than he had been as a child, before- before. Mai might have taken her aloofness and turned that into thoughtfulness, and she was just as capable of feelings as any other woman. What she saw in him, he had no idea, but-

"Wait, what did you mean with the 'or else' part?" Zuko turned to glare at Ty Lee. She curled up to lounge across the foot of his bed, seemingly indifferent to him. Of course, she would be used to Azula's glares, and Zuko felt acid rising up his throat as acknowledged another area where his sister outclassed him.

Ty Lee said, "Oh, I’m not threatening you. I mean that you and Mai are going to run into trouble, and I don't want her to get hurt. She's a very special person, and she needs someone who has a delicate touch, you know?"

Zuko felt his face warming up again. "I didn't touch her!"

"Not so loud!" Ty Lee gave a little pout, and added, "I meant that she needs someone who can figure out her moods and stuff and be careful of her feelings. No offense, Zuko, but I can tell that you’re the kind of guy who doesn't really do that."

Well, she had a point, there. As far as Zuko was concerned, 'feelings' were enemy propaganda meant to make honorable warriors of the Fire Nation doubt themselves. Uncle had been big on them, and now that he was locked up, Zuko felt-

But then, feelings weren't real.

And even if they were, they weren't for Zuko. He couldn't afford them. It was feelings that had made him behave so dishonorably at that war meeting three years ago, feelings that had disappointed Father so much that had no choice but to give Zuko a harsh lesson on weakness.

Zuko didn't deserve feelings.

As much as he hated being told what to do, he had to admit that Ty Lee was right. "Okay. I'll discourage Mai."

In the lamp light, Ty Lee frowned. "Um, maybe just pretend that you're busy when she wants to hang out? Mai is smart, she'll figure it out, and you won't have to be discouraging, like you are."

"Fine. Now get out of my room."

Ty Lee bounced up off the bed. "Okay! Thanks and good night! And sorry for waking you up! Good night again!" She surprised him with a hug, a peck on the cheek, a pat on the head, and a surprisingly crisp bow before scampering off to one of the windows on the far wall and climbing out into the night.

Well. So much for that.

Zuko let himself drop back down to his pillow, and tried to put it all out of his head and get back to sleep.

He watched the sun rise, hours later.






05 - Smoke

Zuko could barely pay attention at the morning briefing, his attention constantly being dragged kicking and pouting over to Mai where she was sitting on the other side of Azula's desk. No matter how many times Zuko checked, she never disappeared into thin air and so solved the problem that life had presented to him.

Ty Lee (may the Agni Warrior disintegrate her) was dozing through the briefing, her head balanced precariously on one of her deceptively delicate-looking fists. No doubt she was tired from such late-night activates as breaking into Zuko's bedroom, dictating his social life to him, and keeping him up all night with worry about things he didn't understand in the slightest. Zuko decided to feel some very sarcastic sympathy for her.

Finally, the Firebender commander finished his report on the riot in the Lower Ring that was violently put down last evening, bowed to Azula, and departed. Immediately, Mai's attention snapped over to Zuko, and he thought he detected a brief flicker of a smile when she caught him looking at her, but maybe it was just the stress playing tricks with his eyes. She rose and stepped over to him with all the grace he had come to expect from her, and when she spoke her voice was perfectly even. "It has come to my attention that I'll be having lunch alone today."

It was like an Uncle-sized weight was lifted from Zuko's shoulders! "Great!"

"It occurred to me that we could eat alone together."

And suddenly, it was like he had two Uncles standing on top of his head spouting contradictory koans. "Oh. I, uh..." He suddenly had trouble remember the lines he had been rehearsing all night long. "I'm not repulsed by your company, but I unavoidably have another unavoidable commitment. Today."

"Oh." Mai's eyes narrowed. "We can do tea again if that works better for you?"

"No!" Ashes, she wasn't supposed to keep trying! All his plans had her running away in tears after he refused her the first time! Why were girls so unpredictable?! "I, uh, have to train. My Firebending. I have to train all day. Unavoidably."

"What a coincidence," Azula's voice rang out. Zuko turned to find her staring at him from her desk, the day's paper reports lying forgotten in front of her. "I was planning on a long training session myself. You should join me; Li and Lo will be there, and their observations are always quite helpful." Her painted lips slanted into a smirk. "After your impressive performance against the Avatar and his Waterbender, I'm very interested in the new tricks you must have learned."

The prospect nearly sent him right into Mai's arms, but Zuko was nothing if not honorable, and he had promised Ty Lee that he would protect Mai from himself. Biting back his frustration, Zuko bit out a, "Fine," and stomped out of his sister's office.

He left Mai standing there, still and quiet as a statue.



Zuko roared and punched out the biggest fireball he could manage, throwing all his rage into it and backing it up with every bit of muscle power in his arm.

It emerged as a streaky gout that was half smoke, and Azula casually brushed it aside without even properly rooting herself. "What was that? Where's the strength that overpowered the Avatar himself?" She put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows. "Are going easy on me, Brother?"

"No!" Zuko still had the marks from the last time Azula thought he was holding back in one of their sparring matches. "I don't know what's wrong! Yesterday my Firebending was fine!"

From her seat at the edge of the garden courtyard, Li (or Lo) intoned, "His heart must conflict for power to wane." Lo (or Li) added, "Will and muscle cannot compensate for such pain." And then together they said, "As ever, Prince Zuko's emotions are his greatest bane."

Zuko sighed and let his whole body droop. Of course, he had trouble remember lines he'd rehearsed all night long, while the crazy old ladies could rhyme together on cue. Even his sister's groupies were better than him.

"Oh, Zuzu, when are you finally going to grow up?" Azula shook her head and sauntered over to him. "You really need to get over Uncle. He betrayed you. He's a selfish old man who chose a tacky teashop over your happiness. What kind of a lesser family member does that? He's not worth your sympathy."

"It's not that," Zuko growled. He didn't even want to think about Uncle, locked up in the palace's dungeons. "Uncle- he's getting what he deserves."

"Of course." Azula stared at him, tilting her head. "You're right, that's not it. Something else is bothering you."

Zuko turned and began retreating from the courtyard. "Forget about it. I don't feel like practicing right now, anyway."

Of course, Azula responded by trotting up alongside him. "Must you be so dramatic? I'm concerned about you. You're my brother, after all, and you should feel good after our great victory here. Come on, tell Little Sister what's bugging you, and then we can hug or bond or something." Zuko tried to ignore her, but then she added, "Because if you don't tell me, I'll be forced to investigate. I don't think either one of us wants that, hm?"

Zuko came to a stop. No, he didn't want Azula prying. She'd find out anyway, and the process would just be all the more torturous. With Azula, her investigations might even involve real torture, and she knew lies the way most other people knew their family and friends.

But wait, most of the time, Azula didn't lie, she just told the truth so that it lied for her, a smokescreen made from real fire. It had to work better than outright lying, considering how Zuko's attempts to fool Zhao had gone.

"I've started thinking about things. About myself. I don't regret siding with you under the city, but... I'm starting to think I'm not... worthy of what I used to want. I'm not sure I deserve-"

"Oh, honestly." Azula crossed her arms over her chest and gave one of those good, long rolls of her eyes she liked so much. " 'Deserve.' That's not even a real word. What you get out of life is what you take from it, and what you're strong enough to hold on to. You've helped kill the Avatar and take down the greatest city in the Earth Kingdom. You forsook the poisonous fool who was dragging you down. You're going home and you're going to be a real Prince of the Fire Nation again. So act like it!"

"I-"

"If you're going to insist on acting like a weakling, clear the area and let me get back to my Firebending. As Ty Lee would say, you’re getting me down, yo."

Zuko nodded, and all but ran away. He hated it, but at least he had protected Mai. She didn't deserve any trouble just because she had really, really bad taste in men.



As soon as her irritating little Zuzu was gone, Azula threw herself into a Firebending kata that had her lungs pumping and her muscles screaming. Her flames blossomed in the air, heating the entire courtyard and wilting the flowers in the surrounding garden. Some of her larger blasts even rose higher than the outer walls of the palace, and it pleased Azula to think that the people in the Upper Ring would see the azure fires of their conqueror rising above the center of their city.

Despite what she had said, Azula wasn't giving up on Zuzu. Bringing him back to the Fire Nation was her mission her in the Earth Kingdom, whatever else she accomplished, and it pleased her to do so not in chains, but with him restored as a functional and contributing member of the glorious Royal Family. She knew that 'deserve' wasn't a word, but she had learned a new term that last time she had visited Ember Island, in one of the place's arcades, and the concept of 'bonus points' was one in which Azula firmly believed.

So how to get 'bonus points' from Zuko?

Well, obviously, she would have to fix Zuzu. He wasn't clever enough to have an existential crisis on his own, so it was simply a matter of finding out who and what had set him off, and then resolving the situation in a way that would restore his confidence. It was a new task for her, in addition to her duties running the occupation of Ba Sing Se, maintaining her superlative Firebending skill, and constantly evaluating for all the threats and opportunities that life gave only to the greatest of people.

That wouldn't be too hard; it was just a matter of scheduling.

Finishing her kata, Azula decided to have a bath. She could figure out which meetings to move in order to accommodate 'Fix Zuzu' Time while she soaked. It was such efficient combinations of effort that made Azula so successful.






07 - Apple

Despite the lousy start to the day, Zuko had managed to turn his afternoon around into a very productive time. During his escape from Azula, he had stumbled across a new staircase which in turn led to a heretofore unseen basement; it was the perfect place to express himself in a unique and artistic way, mostly consisting of snarling and shooting fire. Then he had sat in the dark and pondered his life for a few hours, in a way that Zuko acknowledged might look like sulking to ignorant people like his Uncle, but was definitely more like meditating, if you didn't count any of the rules for real meditation. Finally, he sneaked back to his suite of rooms in the palace, so that he could go straight to bed and try to forget all of his problems for the few hours he would spend unconscious.

He thought he made it without being seen, but no sooner had he closed the door behind him than someone knocked on it and startled the fire out of him. Once he made sure he wasn't having a heart attack, Zuko opened the door.

Mai was standing there, holding a bowl of fruit and a platter of beef-pork and noodles, with chopsticks suspended between her fingers. "I thought you might be hungry after your busy day of Firebending, so I brought dinner. The cooks I bossed around to make it said it's healthy."

Zuko blinked. Now this was just completely unfair. He had told her that he was going to be busy all day. Unavoidably! How did she- "How did you-"

"The food is a couple of hours old, actually, but you're a Firebender so you can just heat the noodles up. Then I waited around for you to come back, so that you wouldn't be 'unavoidably' busy." Mai's face might have changed expression, or maybe she had merely moved just enough to change the way the light fell on it. "I can be very accommodating when I like."

Zuko asked his brain if it had come up with a way to send Mai away without actually sending her away, but his brain was disturbingly silent on the matter, so he told it to keep working the problem and tried to buy some time by asking, "Where were you waiting? I just walked down this hallway."

"Shadows and I get along well." Mai shifted slightly again. "No offense, but can you either let me in or slam the door in my face? My arms are getting tired of holding these plates up."

Zuko's brain once again failed to provide a satisfactory excuse, so he sighed his surrender and stepped out of the doorway. "Come in."



Mai stepped right past Zuko into his receiving parlor, and deposited the plates and chopsticks on the table before kneeling. Zuko hesitated behind her, but finally he shuffled over and kneeled down opposite of her.

Mai wasn't quite sure what was going on, but obviously Zuko didn't exactly desire her company. Maybe he thought he was hiding it, and Mai would be the first to admit that she didn't have much experience with boy-girl interactions (in fact, she was rather proud of that, in a way that was mature and not at all like childish gender rivalries), but she was no idiot. She could tell when Zuko was being more distant that usual. The only question was whether Mai herself was the target of this behavior, or merely collateral damage for Zuko's overall bad mood.

Well, that was what this experiment would tell. Mai was proud of herself for developing it; most other girls might have lounged around worrying about what the object of their affections thought of them, or did something completely inane like trying to divine the truth by plucking petals from flowers or something, but Mai preferred to stick to more practical behavior.

She watched while Zuko picked up the bowl of noodles and beef-pork and heated it up in his hands. She watched while Zuko dug in with a pair of chopsticks. She watched while he proceeded to ignore her and concentrate on food, of all things.

Mai figured that she should probably say something. Unfortunately, she had overlooked preparing some suitable ice-breakers. "So, how did the Firebending go?" She held back a wince. Zuko had been Firebending with Azula; of course it had gone terribly.

Zuko gave her a quick glance. "Terribly."

"Ah." Silence returned to its tyrannical reign, but Mai refused to give up her ragtag rebellion. She struck a purely symbolic blow by saying, "I'm going to have one of your apples."

"Go ahead."

"I like to cut them into pieces."

"Okay."

"Can I borrow a knife?"

Zuko put his chopsticks down and started to reach for his belt, before he remembered who was asking. "Wait, what about your knives?"

"Are accusing a proper Lady of coming to a date armed?"

Zuko blinked.

Zuko furrowed his brow.

Zuko's eyes went wide.

Zuko laughed.

Mai started to smile in response, but the moment was short-lived. Zuko's laughing cut off abruptly, and the unscarred skin on his face when red, as he burst out with, "This is a date?"

Mai wanted to stab herself. (Or him. Whichever would hurt less.) Of course it was a date, but he wasn't supposed to know that. Ah well, she had no choice but to play it cool, now. "Sure. You're a boy, I'm a girl, and there's dinner. I think that meets the minimal qualifications." He didn't look amused by that, and the Dark Lord Silence once again broke in and sought to stamp out all dissent, but Mai would accept only a successful conversation or death. (Hopefully not death). "If it makes you feel better, let's say I'm a friend, and then we don't have to worry about social expectations that we're not equipped to deal with." On impulse, she added, "I do want to be your friend, you know."

Zuko looked up sharply at that. "Why?"

'Why?' What kind of a stupid question was that? Moreover, how was she going to answer it without admitting her desire to feel his lips smashed up against hers in an improbably pleasant form of physical contact?

"I guess... because I think I need a friend like you," she finally said. "I know we've never been close, but... I think there's a Zuko-shaped hole in my life. Why not fix it?"

He stared.

Mai stared back.

This was where she was supposed to say something really profound, wasn't it? Something that would get her romantic intentions across so eloquently that Zuko would be moved to spontaneous lip-smashing. Mai, however, knew better than to try that; it would just lead to more awkwardness, some embarrassment, and bad comedy. Instead, she decided to show rather than tell, so she took one of the apples and bit into the fruit while giving Zuko a sultry look.

The apple sprayed its inner juices straight into her face, sending her blinking and sputtering. "Well, now you know why I usually cut them up, first."

Then Zuko surprised her by laughing again. It was quiet laughter, but this time, he didn’t try to stop it..

This time, Mai had time to share her smile. "And that, Prince Zuko, is why you need me as a friend."



Zuko had to admit that he felt a lot better after dinner. Mai had stayed while he ate, and though their conversation had been nothing particularly stimulating, none of it had made Zuko feel like an idiot, so it was easily among the top ten experiences of his life in the last three years.

Maybe Ty Lee was wrong. Maybe Mai didn't actually like him, and she had somehow grown from a quiet and snotty little girl into a quiet but friendly young lady who stabbed people. Then he wouldn't have to avoid her, because even if Zuko screwed up, Mai had other friends (Ty Lee and Azula, granted, but they were still better than nothing, on average), and losing one friend of several wasn't a terrible tragedy.

Of course, Zuko never had friends before, so he was merely guessing, but the logic held up.

Now he just had to figure out how to fix the rest of his life. With his stomach full and one problem already solved, Zuko was almost inclined to think that so long as there was no further interference, he might have a shot at not hating his life.

After all, how much bad luck could one person have?

TO BE CONTINUED
Death of a Thousand Cuts 1
Next: Death of a Thousand Cuts 2

Written for Maiko Month 2014, back in May. For 27 of the 31 days of that month, I did a small entry in an ongoing Maiko story. The tale is a romantic comedy giving my take on how Mai and Zuko might have wound up as a couple between Books Earth and Fire. While each entry was published individually on other sites, for deviantArt I'm grouping them by in-story day to avoid blanketing my gallery in 30 small chapters.

The events of this story replace those of the official comic "Going Home Again," and likewise disregard any history between Mai and Zuko that was established by the comic. This isn't out of any problems with "Going Home Again" (I like it well enough), but simply because I think it suffers for being compressed to a small number of pages, and there's opportunity for a lot more fun in the start of Maiko.

Art by :iconmaivry:
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The Subjectivity of Art

"It's my latest masterpiece! Tell me what you think," Sokka said to her, his voice mixed with the rustling of paper.

Because she was Toph, and because Toph was blind, she said nothing.

Usually, whenever her friends forgot that she couldn’t see, she retorted with sarcasm, or a withering insult, or sometimes even a blatant display of picking her nose. Sometimes, she even did all three. This time, though, she decided to be lazy, and simply stayed quiet. Sokka sat across the table from her, waiting anxiously, from what she could sense of his heartbeat. They were alone in one of the Fire Palace's little receiving chambers, enjoying one of the rare occurrences when they were both in the same nation and not busy actively mopping up after the war, with the usual ambient sound of life muted by all the expensive decorations that rich homes were obligated to contain.

In her head, Toph started counting, "One badgermole, two badgermole, three badgermole," while she waited in the silence, and it wasn't until, "Twenty-seven badgermole," that Sokka finally wised up.

"Oh, sorry! I forgot!" The paper he was holding rustled once more. "Here, I put it down on the table. Go ahead and feel."

Finally, Toph allowed herself a smile, and reached out with her hands to the low table that sat between her and Sokka. She brushed her fingers over the paper and dried ink, investigating the shapes. When she had been a little girl, still trapped in her parents' care, her mother had tried to teach her something about art, but it had been a frustrating experience for both of them, and then Toph's Earthbending had manifested and the old boring art lessons had been replaced by new boring Bending lessons. Still, despite Toph's best efforts, some of the lessons had stuck.

"It's a person, full body depiction. Not just lines, either, but really filled in with paint. Nice job on the feet, this time; they don't feel anything like a koala-otter's flippers. I'm not sure what the pose is supposed to be, but it feels strong. You have the limbs very tightly arranged. And..." Toph frowned, feeling something odd. She moved her hands back to the figure's main body, where the ink was heaviest, and ran a finger back and forth across it. The ink didn't feel quite like it usually did. There was more pull to it, against the surface of her fingers. Sokka must have used something other than his usual stuff. Was that because of availability, or was he making one of those 'artistic statements' he liked to go on about?

Toph stuck her finger in her mouth and gave it a good, deep licking.

The truth came out and gave her taste buds a pleasant punch. "The ink has metal in it!"

"Right!" Sokka's voice squeaked with his excitement. "I mixed some metal shavings in with the ink, just enough to give it a silvery shiny sheen. I call this piece 'The Metalbender.' It's a new experiment in making the medium part of the art." He paused for a moment, and then added, "It's a picture of you."

That old unwelcome feeling made her heart skip a beat, but she kept her voice flat and her expression still. "Oh, great, how much are people going to be laughing this time?"

"Hey, no, no laughing. Master Piandao says my painting actually looks like painting now!"

Toph knew that, but when Sokka had first started with his artistic endeavors just after the war's end, everyone's reactions had been so hilarious that she never wanted to let the joke go. "At this point, I think he'd say anything to be done with you." She gave her most superior grin. "Still, if there's any subject that could inspire you to actually make something halfway decent, you chose right. I can make anything look good. Even your painting."

She heard the paper rustle again as Sokka yanked it away. "Sure, sure, make fun all you want, but my next Metalpainting is going to be a sword, and then when everyone says it's better than my painting of you, I'm going to make you drink a jar of my new ink."

"It's a bet!"

By the end of their visit together, Toph and Sokka had added another six bets to their friendship on top of that one, none of which they would remember the next time they saw each other.




Six months later, Toph was on the other side of the world, and she had no idea where Sokka was.

Her search for Metalbender candidates had once again taken her away from her friends, and as much as she enjoyed walking across the Earth Kingdom with nothing to her name but the sweaty, dusty clothes on her back, traveling across the wilderness to discover new places to visit and new people to punch sometimes got tedious. She had been passing close to Ba Sing Se, and heard a rumor that the Avatar and his entourage were staying in the city, so she made a detour and began thinking up snarky lines to explain that she didn't really care about spending more time with Sokka, but as long as she had randomly run into him, there was no point to not seeing what kind of trouble they could rustle up in the Earth Kingdom's capital.

When she arrived at their usual meeting place, the Jasmine Dragon, she felt nothing but strangers on the premises. Iroh was away on a tea purchasing trip, the acting manager told her, and the Avatar's bison had been spotting flying out of the city that morning.

That was disappointing.

Toph didn't need anyone but herself, not since long before she had run away from her parents and joined up with her friends to end the war, but that didn't mean she didn't like having other people to rely on.

To justify the trip to herself, Toph visited the same spa that Katara had taken her to, all that time ago, and let the staff there doll her up minimally. During the baths and wraps and arguments about foot scrapings, Toph had felt the usual reminders of her excessively pampered life back under her parents, but they were brushed away easily enough, and instead she focused on the memories of her times with her friends, and how even putting Sokka in the fanciest get-up Ba Sing Se had to offer couldn't hide what a dweeb he was. Then, she went back to the Jasmine Dragon and ordered the Full Tea Experience, a two-hour drinking session with a series of blends from all around the world that turned out to be a lot less fun when done alone. Toph was considering just leaving the city and hitting the road again, but elected to make one more stop before coming to a final decision.

The Jasmine Dragon wasn't just a teahouse; Iroh was making it into a cultural icon that would draw people from all over, and his latest addition was a small art gallery of specialty pieces in one of the building's side rooms. Toph liked the sculptures best, since she could actually perceive those with her Earthsense, but there was one group of paintings that always drew her attention even though she couldn't see them.

Alone in the gallery, Toph stood in front of a display of Sokka's art, and reached out to once again put her hands on 'The Metalbender.' Maybe it was her imagination, but she liked to think she could make the picture out better by sensing for the metal in the ink.

There was the sound of footsteps behind Toph, and she sensed a woman in heavy silks entering the gallery. Before Toph could react, the woman let loose with a screeching cry of, "What are doing, putting your hands on those?! Get away from there!"

The voice rattled Toph to her bones, and not just for its volume. It was a voice Toph had not heard in a long, long time. The last time that voice had spoken to Toph, it had called her weak, and incapable, and misguided. Toph pulled her hand back and did her best make her voice both squeaky and mumbling as she said, "Sorry, ma'am." Then, with a grace and posture she never showed her friends, Toph tried to make a quick retreat while keeping her face just out of view of the other visitor.

She should have known she was going to fail. She always did with this voice.

"Wait... Toph?!"

Toph sighed. "Hi, Mom." She let her body slump comfortably once more.

"Oh... I... I didn't realize... I'm sorry... I thought... oh."

"No problem. I'll just be going."

"Wait!"

Mom's screech made Toph wince, but she did as she was told. She didn't want to make a scene, running out of the Jasmine Dragon with her hysterical mother chasing after her. If it came to that, Toph resolved to Earthbend the ground into a pair of ankle cuffs for Mom, but she was hoping to deal with this in a way that wouldn't eventually get back to Iroh and have him asking awkward, stupid questions the next time she visited.

Mom stepped over with a feathery hesitation in her feet. "How... how are you?"

"Great. Thanks for asking."

The gallery went silent.

Mom cleared her throat and asked, "I... heard you've started a school, in the former colonies. For a new kind of Bender."

Toph gave a nod. "Metalbenders. It's like Earthbending. But with metal. I invented it."

"Yes. That's what they say." Toph felt her mother moving once again, but instead of drawing closer to Toph, she instead moved deeper into the gallery.

To Sokka's paintings.

"I came to see this one, 'The Metalbender.' The stories say it was inspired by you."

Eventually, Toph nodded again. "My best friend made it."

"It's beautiful."

"Yeah," Toph grunted. "That's what I'm told."

"Your best friend, you say?"

"That's right. Sokka. From the Southern Water Tribe."

"Yes, I've heard about him, too. His style is rather unsophisticated, but this metallic ink is breathtaking. Rather innovative, for someone from the Southern Water Tribe. I've heard their civilization was hit especially hard by the Fire Nation's actions."

"Yeah, he's kind of clever, for a stupidface."

"Your best friend, you say?"

Toph frowned. She could sense the lecture coming now, about her choice of company, and how her supposed friend was off doing whatever while Toph ran her school alone, and that she should come home, and deny everything about herself that-

"Toph," Mom interrupted, as if she could read minds, "I ask because this painting he did of you is a nude."

"...what?" Toph felt her face warming, and her heartbeat was going like a badgermole in the rainy season.

"Oh, it's tasteful enough, but the figure is clearly not wearing any clothes." Mom actually giggled. "It's a classic artistic choice, but no doubt your friend doesn't understand the levels of art criticism going on these days. It's now popular to consider the artist's life when examining a piece, and your ' best friendship' will no doubt come up."

"I see," Toph said, because it was the only thing she could think to say, even though it was normally the type of thing she would tease Sokka about saying.

"I do understand what he truly intended, though. Come here, and I'll show you."

Toph hesitated, remembering those art lessons from her childhood. She did not consider them good memories, but one thing they proved was that Mom knew her stuff, and Toph's desire to understand Sokka's painting was strong. She walked over and held her hands out, and Mom took them in her own and guided them to the painting. Toph fingers once again brushed over the metallic ink, the depiction of her own body, and this time her mother's voice narrated the experience:

"The point of a nude is to showcase the natural beauty of the human body. The ink is heavier here, here, and here, to show the tightening of the muscles. The figure is displaying great strength as she bends, and the pose matches the movement of the metal around her, drawing a parallel between the two. They are drawn in the same ink, with the same sheen, so they obviously share a nature. They are both strong, and both everlasting, and both beautiful. The lack of clothing is also a natural state, one shorn of civilization, meant to represent a connection between the elements of Earth, Fire, Air, and Water, and how they are the essence of even the human body. The pose actually reminds me of a painting by Wu Daozi, of a figure holding up the heavens, so I wonder if your friend is making a deliberate allusion?"

"Uh... I don't know."

"Well, I'll assume he is. I'm not sure of the precise statement such a choice is meant to make, but there's no doubt that the Metalbender in this painting is meant to be a similar being, something stronger and greater than mere humans. Able to stand quite capably on her own, and carry others besides." Mom sighed, and let go of Toph's hands.

Toph let them fall, and stood beside her mother, pondering everything that had just been said. "Thanks for explaining. You've always been good at finding that kind of stuff in pictures."

"You're welcome, dear, but don't put too much weight on my artistic insight." Mom laid a dainty hand on Toph's shoulder. "I couldn't see these things until they were put into a painting for me to find. The artist is the one with the real insight. What he saw, I was blind to for many, many years."

Toph's heart was hammering again, but she decided that it was a good kind of hammering. "I'm going to be in the city until tomorrow. Do you want to have some dinner? We can talk art some more."

Though her Earthsense, Toph felt her mother's body relax in a way it never had before. "I would like that, very much."

They moved as one to leave the gallery, but the sound of heavy footsteps brought Toph to a sudden halt. She knew that precise kind of tromping, a clumsy heaviness that came from a certain pair of Water Tribe boots. Then Sokka's voice sounded as he strolled into the gallery, saying, "Hey, there you are! I just got back from helping Aang do this crazy thing for the Earth King over at the place, and I was going to see about dinner but Katara went to the spa and she said that they said you had been in so I figured if you were anywhere you'd be here, so I came to ask if you wanted to get something grilled to eat and- oh, that's your mom."

Toph gave her prettiest, most delicate smile. "Yes, this is my mom. We were just going to get dinner ourselves. You're welcome to join us, of course. While we eat, you can explain why you painted a picture of me naked!"

Sokka's voice hardly ever squeaked anymore, but it did this time as he said, "Artistic choice."

Mom laughed.

END
The Subjectivity of Art
Birthday gift for :iconmaivry:, for the prompt: "...something involving Sokka's art. Or Toph's parents accepting Sokka. Or both. Both might be good."

Sokka's art is definitely involved, but I kind of twisted the bit about Toph's parents accepting Sokka. I left out Lao Bei Fong because I don't know what The Rift is going to do with him, and Poppy's acceptance is mixed in with reconciling with Toph. I also added arbitrary Tokka hints.

I hope you like it, Maivry!
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So, I perhaps flatter myself that some of you might have been wondering when I'll finally review the last two parts of the "Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Search" comics. Well, I decided I didn't want to. The story itself became nothing more than a showcase for two things- Gene Yang's new spirits, and Ursa's whole deal. The rest is barely worth commenting on. (Azula? Well, she got a *start* of a story.)

The Spirits were cool, although I'm not personally fond of Koh's supposed motivation. Still, I guess the parallel with Kuruk is interesting. We'll have to see where it's going. If it goes.

As for Ursa, I actually wrote an essay detailing why I think it's so much garbage. I'd post it here, but it has pictures in it, and I don't have a premium account. XD So, find it on my livejournal or tumblr:

  • Mood: Daily Needs
  • Listening to: 30 Years of James Bond 007
  • Reading: The Republic of Thieves

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Loopy777
"Great Warrior"
Bah weep graaaaagnah weep ni ni bong!

(That's the universal greeting.)

Howdy, dA community! If you're a fan of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" or the Transformers franchise, you might recognize me as Loopy on Avatar Spirit or Jetfirespam on The Allspark. I'm also a fan of Star Wars, and many science fiction and fantasy stories that aren't as merchandise driven, such as Discworld.

I'm genetically incapable of producing visual art that doesn't make human eyes bleed, so this account features my pretty good fan fiction (if there even is such a thing), most notably "Mai's Ramblings", the latest sensation to overtake the Internet.

Comments, especially the complimentary kind, please me very much, so I encourage all visitors to share their thoughts in a suitably adoring manner. Or not. It's your call.

Special thanks to Capt-BA for putting my tag together out of the Mai's Ramblings art!

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:iconfinland25:
finland25 Featured By Owner Nov 15, 2014
Thank you for the babge
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:iconkanyiko:
kanyiko Featured By Owner Oct 24, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thank you very much for the Llama badge!! :hug:
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:iconloopy777:
Loopy777 Featured By Owner Oct 25, 2014
My pleasure.
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:iconazulasviolin:
Azulasviolin Featured By Owner Sep 15, 2014  Student Artist
Hello I just wanted your thoughts on my two chapters of Ozai's Hit and Run.
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:iconbrain-dancer:
Brain-Dancer Featured By Owner Sep 15, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks for the :iconllamasplz:
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:iconpinkypiejr12:
pinkypiejr12 Featured By Owner Sep 9, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
thanks for the Llama
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:iconloopy777:
Loopy777 Featured By Owner Sep 9, 2014
My pleasure.
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:iconsilversteam11:
silversteam11 Featured By Owner Aug 25, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks for the Llama...an important part of life 
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:iconmizzizabellasms:
mizzizabellaSMS Featured By Owner Jul 21, 2014  Student Filmographer
Hey Loopy how are you? how is the Avatar fandom these days? are you still in the fandom?
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:iconloopy777:
Loopy777 Featured By Owner Jul 21, 2014
Of course. The Avatar fandom is the entirety of my social life, such as it is.

Don't cry for me, Argentina.

Anyway, the fandom is doing well now that it has new Korra episodes. They're even pretty good, except for one from the same horrible, horrible writer as The Beach. I still don't care about any of the main cast because of the previous two Books, but at least the writing is good now. The villains are pretty good, too.
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:iconmizzizabellasms:
mizzizabellaSMS Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2014  Student Filmographer
sorry for the late reply, but I'm just concerned because I am no longer as big of a fan of TLOK as i used to be (I'm still a huge fan of ATLA but we all know nothing new will come of it anymore) I am more into the Frozen fandom now, even if i'm not posting as much art, but i've joined discussions and forums on it. i feel kinda guilty of my unannounced leave from avatarspirit.net but yeah that just happened. i have watched season 3 but i guess this whole separate story seasons format, plus the whole Universe gone crazy with the spirits and the airbending kinda turned me off from TLOK as a whole....it effectively destroyed the mysticism and wonder of the world the original series built. Zuko, and the Korra-Asami friendship are the sole saving graces, and count me back into the fangirling if ever we get to see Zuko's daughter and the Fire Nation again LOL.

oh and the whole Nickelodeon pulling Korra off air thing was just a confirmation of my dreaded feelings with the development of this whole series. I'm very disappointed that it has come to this.
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:iconloopy777:
Loopy777 Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2014
Eh, I never thought that LoK was a good fit for Nick, so this latest move hasn't been anything like a sign of the Apocalypse to me. If they do Avatar again, I expect it to skew younger and simpler like ATLA.
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:iconfoulmouthed-fangirl:
Foulmouthed-Fangirl Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2014
AHA! I am replying late!
I wanted to thank you for the llama. I shall call him Chumbawumba.
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KZ-jello Featured By Owner Apr 7, 2014
Thanks for the fav! :hug:
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:iconloopy777:
Loopy777 Featured By Owner Apr 8, 2014
It was happily given. :)
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holotwins Featured By Owner Apr 6, 2014  Student Artist
Thanks for the Llama Badge.
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killerbat13 Featured By Owner Mar 3, 2014
np... i love it :D
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CrazyLilBit Featured By Owner Jan 19, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist

Thanks so much for the watch. It means a great deal.

I'm a big fan of your work on this site by the way.

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:iconumbrum753:
umbrum753 Featured By Owner Dec 29, 2013
My next chapter is up if you are interested in reading it. you don't need to review it like the past ones.
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:iconxena11:
Xena11 Featured By Owner Dec 23, 2013
I like it
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:iconloopy777:
Loopy777 Featured By Owner Dec 23, 2013
Thanks for Watching me, as creepy as that sounds. :D
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:iconxena11:
Xena11 Featured By Owner Dec 23, 2013
thank you for the llama
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:iconladyoflegends:
LadyofLegends Featured By Owner Dec 16, 2013  Student Writer
Thanks for the llama. :D
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:iconloopy777:
Loopy777 Featured By Owner Dec 17, 2013
My pleasure.
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:iconumbrum753:
umbrum753 Featured By Owner Dec 8, 2013
Hello I am a big fan of your work and I was wondering if you have the time I would love to know what you thought of my Azula/Korra fanfic. Its my first and I got others planned so I am always looking to improve. If you have time thanks. :)
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