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Holy Matrimony

Most people would have been surprised at how little Zuko and Katara argued after their marriage. The expectation had been that he was fire, she was water, and therefore steam or some such; or, he was a royal, she was peasantry, and thus all domestic disputes would become bitter class warfare. The truth, though, was that they wanted to get along, and so they did- sometimes with loud, heated talking, but rarely coming to the point of an actual fight.

Thus, when an actual shouting match broke out- culminating in three days of very loud Not Talking at each other- both Zuko and Katara wound up feeling thoroughly sick over it, but they still couldn't come to peaceful terms.

"It would be ridiculous if the future Fire Lord wasn't a confirmed Soldier of the Agni Warrior," Zuko said at one point. "How could the Fire Nation look to their lord for leadership if he didn't believe (rightly!) that humans were created when the Agni Warrior breathed life into the drops of dragon blood that were shed from his Sword when he won the world back from the Wyrm King?"

Katara's hands had been clenched into fists for so long that they were radiating pain, which wasn't helping her mood as she retorted, "You're so concerned about what a bunch of racists hogmonkeys think, but any child of mine is going to be half Water Tribe, and you want to cut her off from half of her family by denying her the shared joy of knowing that humans are the living tears of the Spirit of Tranquility! I would have expected you to have more concern about our daughter being cut off from her own blood relatives!"

And so the back-and-forth continued for a week and day, until both Zuko and Katara were able to work up the strength to admit that they couldn't solve this problem on their own. And so they arranged to visit the best peacemaker they both knew.




In one of the Eastern Air Temple's meditation gardens, Aang listened to both sides of the argument and smiled at his friends. "No problem! All you have to do is teach your kids both myths. They aren't mutually exclusive, right?"

Zuko found himself frowning. "Not mutually- Of course they are! How can people be both dragon blood and spirit tears at the same time?"

Katara nodded. "If you're trying to make me agree with Zuko on something, it's working."

Aang shrugged. "If you stick to all the details, sure. But I think what you're both saying is that you consider people to have a special quality, something spiritual that's worthy of reverence. Just stick to that, and mix whatever details you can make work together."

Katara's hands were scrunched into fists again. "I don't think you're taking this seriously. This means a lot to Zuko and me."

"I know, and I respect that. And your marriage. If you hadn't broken my heart and left me for Zuko, I never would have realized the passionate love I had been harboring for Toph ever since we met, so I really want to do right by you two." He turned to where his wife was lounging next to him on the grass. "Right?"

"Whatevs," Toph said, as she continued picking her nose.

"See?" Aang gave a bow of his head towards Zuko and Katara. "And I'm sorry. Part of the problem might be how unfamiliar I am with your beliefs. I've heard bits and pieces of them during my travels, but I guess I'm not very well versed in what they all mean to you two. The Air Nomads believe that humans are just animals that learned how to be smart. There are theories about how maybe it had something to do with Spirits, but we don't get too hung up on the details."

Katara leaned forward. "And does Toph believe that, too?"

"Psh," Toph said, finger still up her nose. "Hardly. Humans are clay given life by the most powerful Earthbender of the Before Times, the Great Badgermole. (I think I could probably take him in a fight. I'm eventually going to try giving life to rock, too.) That's why we have to work to toughen ourselves up. We're just wimpy clay until we harden ourselves into something rocklike."

"And Aang," Zuko ventured, "respects those beliefs?"

"I think it's one of the dumbest things I ever heard," Aang said with a smile. "But Toph is free to believe whatever she wants, even if it's nonsense."

Zuko and Katara exchanged glances, but Toph didn't seem to have any reaction to her husband. Katara eventually massaged her forehead and said, "So how are you going to address that when you have kids?"

Aang shrugged. "The only thing that seems fair is to have an even number of kids, and half will be raised the right way, and half will be raised Toph's way."

Zuko looked to Toph. "And you're okay with that plan?"

Toph pulled her finger out of her nose, and flicked something into the grass. "I think it's one of the dumbest things I ever heard. But Aang is free to believe whatever he wants, even if it's nonsense."




As Zuko and Katara explained their problem again in a kitchen half a world away, Sokka brought a pot of tea over and poured for everyone. Suki handled the encouraging nods while their guests spoke, and offered a sympathetic smile at the end. "I can see why you're both so upset. This is a very sensitive and complex issue."

"Thank you," Katara said, as she took a sip of her tea. "I don't suppose you have any solutions?"

"We haven't planned that far ahead," Suki confirmed. "But as long as you treat each other with respect and love, I think you'll be able to find a compromise."

Zuko looked over at Sokka as his brother-in-law sat down at the table. "Do you believe in this Tears of Tranquility thing, too?"

Sokka looked at Katara, and then back to Zuko before speaking with an obviously artificial chuckle. "Well, you know, I was raised to believe that and all, but it sounds like magic to me, and leaving aside all the Avatar junk that Aang does, I'm generally... uh, skeptical? Yeah, skeptical of stuff that I can't verify myself." While Katara shook her head, Sokka leaned over and put an arm around Suki. "That's why I think Suki and I won't have much trouble."

Suki looked over at him with evident surprise. "You're fine with us raising our future daughters to know Kyoshi's Generosity?"

"...to know the what now?"

"Kyoshi's Generosity. Avatar Kyoshi sculpted the dual world, and populated it with humans and Spirits. We all owe our existence to her, and it is her voice that gives us our lifesong."

Sokka looked over at his guests, but Zuko and Katara were leaning back in their seats and paying a lot of attention to their tea. He turned back at Suki and said, "But the world existed before Kyoshi was in it. She's only two Avatars back, and there was a whole line of, like, thousands before her."

Suki shook her head.

Sokka took his arm off of her. "Seriously, this is a fact. Remember, last year during the incident with the Dread Lord, Aang actually turned into Avatar Yangchen? You know, the Avatar before Kyoshi? We all saw it! You were there! How can you believe this stuff?"

Suki smiled, and took one of Sokka's hands into her own. "Dear, I respect your right to be an infidel dog tricked by demons into believing the Lies of the Void, but you can't sway me from the true path by speaking your thought pollution. Just know that I love you, and I don't ever want to hear you say anything like that again because then I will have to kill you and purify any children we have by anointing them with your infidel blood."

Sokka was still sputtering when Zuko and Katara snuck away.




The Cirque de Taiyang was one of the most popular troupes of performing artists in the world, and had created circus routines out of the various creation myths from across all the surviving cultures. (The acrobatic performance of 'The Kult of Kyoshi' was the least popular.) People of all kinds and beliefs worked in the Cirque, and managed to band together to create beautiful exhibitions that impressed audiences wherever they were shown.

And so Zuko and Katara actually had a bit of hope when they sat down with their old friends, the married owners and directors of the Cirque de Taiyang. Mai lounged on a divan across from her guests, while Ty Lee stood up behind her and cycled through various stretching exercises.

After he had explained his problems with Katara, Zuko said, "So, just to confirm, you both have worked out your own belief issues, right?"

Ty Lee giggled. "There's not much to work out. Obviously, Mai and I were both taught about the whole Agni Warrior thing, but neither of us has stuck with that. I don't have any specific beliefs, aside from being certain that people have a spiritual beauty that calls us to honor our potential."

Mai yawned. "And I don't have any specific beliefs. Period."

Katara pushed a smile onto her face that almost covered how nervous she was. "And it's probably not an issue- I mean, since you two- well, you're both girls- so you can't- you know-"

Ty Lee stopped stretching for a moment, and looked directly at Katara. "We can't have kids, no, but there's always the possibility of taking in a needy child at some point."

Mai snorted. "Pass."

"I'm sorry, what?"

"Kids are noisy and messy. I'll pass."

Ty Lee stared at Mai for a moment, then closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out with a smile. When she opened her eyes, she looked back at Mai. "Okay. I understand your feelings on the matter." She returned to her stretching, seemingly content with the universe.

Zuko stood up. "That's it? You didn't come to a solution! How can you-"

"Oh, Zuko, relax a little." Mai rolled her eyes with a flair that recalled Azula. "Obviously, you and your wife have been in separate sleeping chambers for a while."

Katara made a sound like a dying lemur, but Zuko was the first to respond. "That's beside the point! How are you and Ty Lee able to just move on from something like that?"

Mai shrugged. "Who says we moved on? She'll just keep annoying me about it, for years if she has to, trying to get me to give in. And I'm going to be as blunt as possible about how stupid it is until I hurt her enough so that she'll stay quiet."

Katara stood up, too. "And that's a marriage?!"

Ty Lee brought one of her legs up so that her toes touched her forehead, and giggled. "It is for us. All the mistweed I smoke probably helps, too."




"That was no help," Zuko pronounced when they were back in the Fire Palace.

"At all," Katara confirmed.

They sat together in the parlor of their suite, sprawled across opposite couches. It was Katara who spoke first. "It's not that I don't respect what you believe. I do! I think you're honest with it, and the reasons you believe it are good reasons. They show that you're a good person. But, if my child isn't raised to believe that she's a Tear of the Tranquility Spirit, then she won't be able to take the Rite of Adulthood, because that isn't just about passing some test." Katara straightened her back, and sat so that she was leaning forward towards her husband. "Part of being an adult, being a part of the Tribe, is understanding ourselves and our place in the world. As part of the world. I could respect my child if she had other beliefs, the same way I respect you, but I couldn't let that happen without not believing it myself. How can I let my child not be a part of my Tribe unless I saw no value in my Tribe? I would be betraying what I truly believe, and I don't know how you could respect that. Or me, if I did that."

Zuko sighed, and leaned forward to look his wife in his eyes. "It's the same for me. The Agni Warrior's slaughter of the dragons was a tragedy, and as their living blood, I believe that all people have a responsibility to honor that tragedy by living the best, most honest lives they can. That's why I value Honor so much. I could try to teach my child about Honor, but I feel- it would be hollow if I couldn't really explain why it's so important. How could I do justice to the Code, if I taught it like it's just arbitrary? I couldn't just be vague about it like Ty Lee, because Honor is different for each nation and person, and to accept the Code, my child would have to understand what went into each part. That it isn't just symbolic based on some myth, but that it's a mandate called for by blood bonds and meaningful death. And yes, that same belief, my Honor, makes me respect your beliefs, and how much you value your Tribe and want your child to be a part of it. To make you compromise your beliefs like that would be dishonorable, and a terrible thing."

They sat there, looking at each, and eventually the exchange that needed to happen...

...happened.

"I love you."

"I love you, too."

"So what do we do?"

"I guess... we learn more about each other's beliefs and..."

"...and then see what happens."

END
Holy Matrimony
Between the Zutara and the Religious Satire, I'm hoping to offend every single person who reads this.

Disclaimer: None of the wacky religions described in this story are meant to be associated with any real world faiths or practices. (Except Ty Lee's mistweed. I expect that one is pretty clear.)
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DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS BONUS

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT...

Maiko Month 20 - AU

"Just think, Prince Zuko. If the timing of the surprise attack on Omashu had been pushed up by a single day, the Avatar might have been captured before we got here, and we would have missed out on our grand opportunity." Uncle smiled and exuded both a calming presence and a tea-scented funk.

Zuko, however, was not mollified. "That just means that the Avatar could be anywhere by now! And now everyone who might have been able to tell us where he was headed has disappeared and joined some kind of rebel resistance!"

Uncle's eyes narrowed. "Don't rebels resist by definition?"

"I don't care, Uncle!" A servant chose that unfortunate moment to appear in the waiting room, catching Zuko in mid-snarl. "What is it?"

"Er... the governor will see you now... Prince Zuko." The servant gave a hasty bow and led the way into the throne room.

Zuko had to admit, it was a very grand hall. It had once been the throne room of King Bumi, but now man who Fa- the Fire Lord had appointed as governor was making it his own. The throne had been draped in red velvet, and workmen were busy hanging Fire Nation flags over every even vaguely Earthy decoration. A second throne, carved from redwood (of course), had been set beside the other, and a woman who could only be the governor's wife was seated there to hold court with her husband.

Both the governor and his wife looked vaguely familiar to Zuko, but he couldn't place them. He hoped he hadn't given them a reason to hate him at some point in the past, but even Zuko had to admit that the odds were poor on that one.

At least they didn't make him bow.

"Welcome, Prince Zuko. What is your business in Omashu?"

Zuko gave a quick glance to Uncle, who remained quiet, and stepped forward. "I seek the Avatar, on the order of the Fire Lord. The crew of my ship received intelligence that the Avatar was spotted carousing in this city not long ago-"

"Yes," the governor interrupted, "we found a cabbage merchant in the dungeons who was complaining about the same thing, but unfortunately he was arrested for assaulting the King before the Avatar left. We haven't had any other word, but of course we're still in the process of... uh, pacifying the city."

It took an effort of will for Zuko to keep his shoulders from slumping in disappointment. That was their last lead; now his only strategy was to sail north and parallel the Earth Kingdom's western coast, on the vague hope that the Avatar was indeed heading for the Northern Water Tribe and wanted to take the shortest route there.

Zuko was about to ask the governor if he was sure about the cabbage merchant when a door behind the thrones popped open, and a young woman stuck her head out. "Mother, Tom-Tom had a little 'accident' and now the rug in the parlor smells funny. I've decided that I'm not dealing with it."

That girl! Something about her looked so hot! Familiar. Zuko meant to think that something about her looked so familiar. Of course.

The governor's wife turned to look at her daughter. "Mai, we're in the middle of something. You remember Prince Zuko, of course."

Mai.

Mai.

Zuko blinked. Wow, someone had really grown up. He wondered if Azula knew where her old friend was living, now. (What was he thinking? Of course Azula knew.)

Mai stepped fully through the door and approached Zuko. Her face remained blank, but Zuko still couldn't help but notice that it had grown a lot prettier since his banishment. Oh no, what if she looked at his face? His dishonor had been made manifest by the righteous hand of his father and now half of his face looked like bacon and even if Mai had crushed on him back when they were kids there was no way she could possibly accept-

"Oh, Zuko," she hissed. "You look so different." He let his gaze fall to his feet, but Mai continued to say, "You've gone bald!"

That brought his eyes back up. "Uh, I shave my head now because the phoenix tail goes better with my-"

"Whatever. At least it will grow back."

Zuko blinked. Was she telling him to stop shaving his head?

Fortunately, the governor chose that moment to intercede. "Dear, Prince Zuko is on a mission to find the Avatar and bring him-"

"Sounds good to me," Mai interrupted. She walked forward, grabbed Zuko's hand, and began dragging him out of the throne room.

"What," Zuko said.

"You would not believe how boring it is in this city. Since the natives literally went underground, the only exciting thing to happen is my brother's potty failures, and that isn't my idea of entertainment. I'll help you find this Avatar guy. That seems like it will be exciting."

Zuko let himself be dragged along, because that seemed like the easiest course of action. "You know I live in a dingy ship with a crew of men, right?"

Uncle jogged up. "That won't be a problem! I'm sure having an outgoing young woman on board will be a breath of fresh air, and Mai's sweet nature will form the core of a new family dynamic that bring us all closer together and make us even more effective at finding the Avatar!"

Mai came to a sudden halt. "Ew, that sounds like Zutara fanfic." Zuko had no idea what that meant, but felt compelled to nod in agreement anyway. "I agree that the male crew won't be a problem, but that's mainly because I'm wearing twenty pounds of knives and blades under my clothes, and one of you is going to set me up with my own room (or cabin or whatever) even if means kicking someone else out." Then she began dragging Zuko along again.

"Have fun, dear," Mai's mother called out. "Try to bed Prince Zuko before you get back!"




Weeks later, they were hot on the trail of the Avatar again. "Sailing into Fire Nation waters," Uncle said as their ship sliced through the waves towards both the fleeing sky bison and Admiral Zhao's blockade. "Of all the foolish things you have done in your sixteen years, Prince Zuko, this is the most foolish."

Mai looked out from under the umbrella she used to hide from the sun. "Really? Because the other day I saw him trying to order around one of the komodo rhinos in the name of the Fire Lord, and I thought that was pretty foolish."

Zuko decided to honorably ignore both of them as he ordered the catapult crew to fire at the sky bison. Uncle's continued entreaties were almost as annoying as the crew's complete inability to hit anything with their shots, and then on top of that the blockade itself opened fire towards Zuko's ship and managed to score a direct hit on the engine.

"Wow." Mai's voice was an utter deadpan. "All those shots fired from both directions and the only thing that gets hit is our ship. Seriously, Zuko, are you cursed or something?"

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. "Do you have anything helpful to add or are you just on deck to provide annoying commentary?"

"Annoying?" Mai frowned. "I thought I was entertaining you."

"Truly," Uncle said, "love does not smooth all exchanges."




A few days and one exploding island later, Zuko's luck turned around, and a chance encounter at a marketplace led to his capturing the Avatar's pet Waterbender. "I'll save you from the pirates," he snarled sarcastically.

The Waterbender was immediately yanked out of his grip. Zuko blinked and looked over to find Mai shooing the girl back into the woods. "What are you doing?"

"It's not that I'm jealous." Mai turned around and looked him right in the eyes. "But I'm just saying that you never grabbed me and tied me up."




Another week later, Zuko was whispering in Mai's room, but her bored expression reflected the complete lack of romance in the situation. "So then I grabbed the Avatar and put my swords up to his neck, and Zhao bought my bluff and opened the gate for us. We would have gotten away, but one of the Yu Yan archers shot me in the face."

Mai quirked an eyebrow. "Your head is looking pretty good for having been hit with an arrow. Very, good, actually."

Zuko frowned. He could never figure out if Mai actually thought he was cute or had the most sarcastic sense of humor imaginable. (Or both.) As usual, he decided to ignore the issue. "I think the arrow was blunted, and my mask was made of good wood. Anyway, it knocked me out and the Avatar had to drag me away, but he saw who I was and ran away again."

"Oh well. And you want to hide your mask in my room because?"

"Because you have the only wardrobe cabinet on the ship, and I don't want to risk Zhao showing up and seeing anything he might recognize."

Mai sat down on her bed and tapped her chin. "He'd probably also recognize that black jumpsuit you're wearing. You better leave it here with your mask."

Zuko stared back at her. He truly could never tell when she was joking.

She leaned forward and added, "Start with your pants."




Zuko watched as the bounty hunter woman rode her shirshu creature away, leaving him with a big hole in his ship and the beginnings of an idea. If that shirshu could track by scent from anywhere in the world, then-

"I'm impressed," Uncle announced. "Very impressed."

Zuko gave Uncle a disapproving look and was about to reprimand him about letting himself be distracted from the hunt for the Avatar, but then Mai said, "Me, too. She was the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

Zuko was going to reprimand Mai as well, but then she added, "Zuko, what do you think of me going for the skin-tight black leather look?"

...what had he been thinking about again?




Another week later, the hunt had taken a turn for the worst. Zhao had shown up to steal his crew, leaving him without any way of following the Avatar to the North Pole. Uncle came to try to cheer him up, saying, "The crew wanted me to wish you safe travels."

"Good riddance to those traitors."

"It's a lovely night for a walk. Why don't you join me? It would clear your head." Zuko resolutely ignored Uncle's pathetic attempts, and eventually he turned to go. "Or, just stay in your room and sit in the dark. Whatever makes you happy."

As soon as Uncle was gone, Mai climbed out from under his bed. "I thought he'd never leave. Now, about cheering you up..."

Mai, it turned out, was a lot better at making Zuko feel better than Uncle.




And so it was that Zuko was completely distracted while Zhao's hired thugs snuck aboard his ship, planted barrels of blasting jelly, and escaped into the night.

Both he and Mai were killed when the ship exploded, but at the very least, they died very happy.

WE NOW RETURN YOU TO THE REGULAR TOMFOOLERY OF YOUR LIFE AS A MAIKO SHIPPER

AND IF YOU WEREN'T ONE BEFORE, YOU ARE NOW

DEAL WITH IT
Death of a Thousand Cuts Bonus
Previous: Death of a Thousand Cuts 5

Although technically this whole story was an AU, I couldn't resist the opportunity to use the "AU" prompt to explore/parody a certain sub-genre of Maiko fanfic that is fairly popular. (And also take a quick potshot at the formulaic nature of a certain sub-genre of Zutara fanfic. ;)) I have nothing against this particular plot concept, but I haven't seen an implementation yet that really satisfied me.

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

26 - Bonds

Zuko had wanted to press on to the palace, but Mai insisted on taking a bath, instead. His reply to that demand had been a very assertive, "What?!" but it failed to make any impression on Mai whatsoever.

She had just looked at him with those sharp eyes of hers and said, "Zuko, you're not the captain of a ship anymore, or a fugitive living in ditches or whatever fugitives do. You're a Prince, and even if you choose to remain in exile, you have a certain standard to meet. Have a bath, air your clothes, take a nap in something other than a barrel, and then we'll take a long carriage ride to the palace."

"We can't wait a few hours to do all that?"

"Zuko, I stink like Lower Ring. If we're going to be friends you're going to have to learn to tolerate my desire to not smell like a hobo."

Zuko had been tempted to think accusatory thoughts about women and bossy natures, but Uncle had behaved exactly the same way both when they had their ship and when they were on the run together, so Zuko was left with no one to blame but individual people and that wasn't nearly as satisfying. He and Mai made their way to an inn at the edge of the Middle Ring, and arranged for breakfast, baths, and places to nap.

Zuko rushed through his own bath so that he could get to the much more interesting breakfast. Once he had eaten, he headed back to his room, and passed Mai's own quarters on the way. A sign had been pinned to the door with a familiar throwing blade: "Zuko, if you feel the need to try to peep on my bath, I appreciate the interest, but I will bean you with a stiletto if I see any sign of you. You're going to have to decide if you want to step out with me just from seeing my face and how I fill out my clothes. (You fill yours out quite nicely.) ~Mai"

Zuko could only blush in response and wonder just where she got her sense of humor.




After his nap, Zuko awoke to the sounds of a celebration wafting in through his open window. He dressed in his brown robes (quickly laundered by the staff of the inn), and headed out to see what was going on. He idly hoped that the Fire Nation hadn't been overthrown while he was asleep; that was one last indignity that he didn't think he could handle.

Instead, it turned out that a wedding had taken place in the inn's sizable patio.

The ceremony was over, and the party had commenced with vigor. The newly married couple- a plump pair who were obviously of local merchant stock- was seated at a central table, and they were happily receiving good wishes from the revelers. Members of the hotel staff were ferrying around food and drink, while some of the guests were already positioning themselves in lines in preparation for a dance.

A shadow came up behind Zuko, and he glanced back to see Mai, looking as fresh as ever with her hair glowing like polished volcano glass in the sunlight. She looked back at him, and there was an almost amused slant to her eyes. "Please don't ask me to dance. I'd rather avoid having to refuse you."

Zuko shook his head. "Dancing isn't one of the things I picked up during my exile."

"Oh, good. And here your sister was worried that you'd lost all traces of a civilized lifestyle."

Zuko supposed that was a joke, but he had never understood the humorous philosophy of 'it's funny because it's true.' Some true things (like Azula being a jerk) were not humorous at all, while other true things (such as a pirate captain having his boat stolen by his victims) were hilarious. Truth had nothing to do with it, really.

Into the silence of their observation, Mai motioned at the newlywed couple with her chin and said, "Don't take this as an attempt to pressure you, but what do you think about love?"

"What?"

Mai sighed. "Zuko, you're going to have to stop using that as a universal reply to everything serious I say."

"Well, uh, I don't think about love. It hasn't really come up before now."

Mai threw a glare at him that was almost as sharp as her knives. "Okay, who's teasing who now? Really, what's your opinion about love? Everyone has been talking to me about it since I first started ogling you, and I want to know your side of it. How does it start, how does it work? Is it even real?"

Zuko could only shrug. "Parents and children love each other." Or at least, that was how it was supposed to work, if the children deserved it. "Soldiers love their comrades. It makes sense that two people who get married could love each other, too. But I don't think it's worth all the poetry. Parents and children still betray each other. Soldiers fall in battle, or go their separate ways once the fighting is done."

Mai nodded along with his words. "That's my take on it, too. All that stuff about people dying for love is probably propaganda."

"Exactly!" Zuko smiled at the echo of the thoughts he had just a few days ago. "Enemy propaganda meant to weaken the Fire Nation's resolve!"

"Well, let's not go crazy, here. I figured it was something meant to trick young people into marrying whoever their parents point them at."

"Oh, uh, that too."

Mai waved a dismissive hand at the wedding party. "Come on, grab some wedding munchies if you want, and let's get back to the palace. I left half my knives back in the Lower Ring, and now that I'm clean again I'm feeling naked without them."

Zuko crunched his eyes closed against the mental image.




"What do you mean, my sister isn't here?"

The palace servant bowed before Zuko. "The princess took her pink companion and the consultant from New Ozai with her on some business. She said she would be back tomorrow."

Zuko blinked. "So that means I'm in charge!"

"Actually, your highness, she said that you were not in charge, that any messages or decisions should be saved for her return, and if there were an emergency military situation, General Chen would be responsible."

Zuko deflated, but before he could start expressing his displeasure in a manner that people all too often mistook for whining, Mai poked him in the ribs with a finger. "Hey, don't let it bother you. Azula's just playing another of her games. She probably wants you to commit to going back to the Fire Nation or something before she'll reward you. Or else she's looking for amusement and is going to ask the servant to describe your tantrum for her when she gets back."

Zuko looked at the servant, who shrugged and grinned.

And so he and Mai wound up having dinner alone. Zuko told stories about the Lower Ring, and Mai told stories about Omashu. He shocked her by swearing that the apartment houses at the edge of the city forced their inhabitants to use communal bathrooms, while she in turn shocked him by describing the time the Avatar kidnapped her little brother. Then they adjourned to the Palace's game room, where Mai taught him how to cheat at cards long into the night.




Zuko arrived perfectly on time for the morning briefing the next day, and the first sign that something was wrong was that Ty Lee was not only back from her trip with Azula, but the acrobat had gotten to the meeting before Zuko and was kneeling in place wide awake.

Oh, and then there was the way Azula was standing and grinning at him the way an owl-cat grins at a meadow vole before beginning discussions about dinner.

And then there was Mai's Mother, who was standing behind Azula and bouncing Tom-Tom in her arms so exuberantly that the poor kid looked ready to upchuck.

And then there was Mai, standing beside Ty Lee and keeping her face as blank as Zuko had ever seen it.

He had a distinctly hunted feeling. "What's going on?"

Azula produced a scroll from behind her back and held it out. "I successfully concluded the business that had me writing letters and riding out to handle the response. Here, this is for you."

Zuko took the paper, and was surprised when it didn't explode in his hands. "What is it?"

"Oh, it's your betrothal proposal to Mai. It's been approved and filed back in the Fire Nation. Congratulations!"

"WHAT?!"

Despite the wind-like rushing in his ears, Zuko heard Mai sigh and mutter, "I knew he'd say that. You owe me five gold, Ty."






27 - Safe

In what was becoming a disturbingly common occurrence, Zuko's mind decided to have a conversation with itself. It started by asking if it had heard right, that Azula had just announced his betrothal to Mai. The other half of his mind confirmed that was indeed what his sister had just said, and then politely inquired if that made any sense at all to anyone. The first half of Zuko's mind admitted that there was a dearth of sense in circulation at the moment, and the second half then let out an anxious sigh and took solace in not being the only one to notice. Then both sides went off together to get some tea, in the hopes that the whole matter would be resolved by the time they got back.

Zuko's body, meanwhile, was still trying to catch up. It looked down at the scroll in its hands and sent out another, "What?!" with the hope that this time, someone would actually explain.

Instead, Mai's Mother (what was her name?) let out a sound that could only be described as a "Squee!" Tom-Tom, at least, looked just as mystified as Zuko, but it probably wasn’t good that was on the same level as a two-year-old in this.

He turned to look at Mai herself, and once again ventured the old reliable, "What?!"

Mai sighed. "Azula, it was your plan. Don't make me explain it."

Zuko turned back to his sister, and this time managed to expand his driving concern: "You what?!"

Azula smirked at him. "If you had been listening, you would have heard that this is just a betrothal proposal."

"What?!"

"Oh, Zuzu, learn a new tune." She rolled her eyes. "A proposal is not a true betrothal agreement. Surely you've heard of them? It's nothing more a confirmation from the proper legal bodies that you and Mai will be allowed to file a real betrothal at a later date if you so choose."

She yanked the scroll out of Zuko's hands, held it up so that he could see it, and pointed to the very top. Sure enough, the big characters at the top read, 'You've Been Pre-Approved! (No obligations, no hidden fees!)'

Zuko shook his head. "I still don't understand. What's the point of all this?"

"Allow me, dears." Mai's Mother stepped forward and smoothly handed Tom-Tom off to her daughter. She smiled at Zuko and gave a little bow. "It's an increasingly common practice in the Fire Nation, these days. For years, families have betrothed their children as early as possible to secure the future of both the child and clan, but thanks to the war many of our people have seen their fortunes change. Old, venerable families have fallen thanks to the military blunders of their scions, and lower clans have risen up by making themselves useful to the Fire Lord." At that, she stood up a little straighter, and Zuko recalled Mai's parents hadn't been much of anything in Fire Nation society until her father became famous for his success at military engineering. Something about bridges, as he recalled. "There's an epidemic of broken betrothals, to the point where marriage contracts didn't have much of a point at all. That's why an easy, alternative path has been provided to confirm things based only on the present situation."

Azula nodded. "Instead of going through all the trouble of getting a contact, only to have to overturn it later, the pre-approval process ensures that the marriage would be acceptable without tacking it to the rising sun, and then provides recommended dowries based on the status of each family and the prominence of the would-be spouses themselves." An ugly smirk stretched across her face. "Normally, Mai would have to come with a pretty hefty prize in order to secure the hand of a member of the royal family, but since you were banished and scarred, your market value is unusually low for your station."

Zuko was almost grateful for the insult. Marriages contracts that weren't marriages contracts boggled his mind, but he was on much firmer footing when it came to insults. "How could you do this to me? You don't have the authority to bind me!"

Azula pulled another scroll out from behind her back. "Actually, this here confirms that I'm your legal guardian. You're not of age yet, so I had to endorse the proposal for you."

Zuko couldn't help but blink at that. "But... you're younger than me! If I'm not of age, neither are you!"

Azula produced a third scroll. "Actually, I issued a royal order emancipating myself shortly after Father was crowned. I knew you'd never be able to run your own life, and a Fire Lord would be much too busy for this kind of thing, so I had it enshrined in law that all Fire Princesses are adults from the moment of their birth, made an exception for myself in the grandfather clause (no point in giving rights to dead ancestors, after all), and then filed the paperwork to legally adopt you. If I paid taxes, I could use you as a write-off."

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to understand it all without going insane. In that, he failed utterly, but whether it was the understanding or the sanity he wound up losing was an open question. "Never mind. Just... what's the point of a proposal? Trying to make sure that you'll always have a spy right next to me?"

He heard Mai give a quiet gasp, but he kept his eyes on Azula. His sister actually looked surprised at the accusation. "Zuzu, I hardly need to go to such trouble to attach a spy to you. Let's face it, any girl who would be willing to marry you is someone I could have in my pocket within a month. I am me, after all."

Zuko had to admit that she had a point, there. "Then why? Why go through all this trouble just to rub in how much you patronize me?"

Mai stepped forward, and swung Tom-Tom into her mother's arms before coming up to look Zuko right in the eyes. "Think about it. This stupid thing was filed in the Fire Nation. You're being legally recognized as a Fire Nation citizen in good standing who's worthy of marrying me. Me, an heiress of a clan with a residence in the Capital. This is legal proof that your exile is over. You can go home, Zuko. You're safe now."

The whole office spun around Zuko, and went it came to a stop, he found himself once again looking at his sister. "It's true?"

Azula nodded. "Your banishment was lifted when the Homeland filed my report on Ba Sing Se's fall. The approval of the proposal shows that it all holds up, and sets legal precedent. Even if you don't marry Mai, you're free to go home, thus proving that the fears you've been wallowing in since we took over the city have been unfounded and paranoid."

Once again, Zuko's mind froze up, but this time he dared not say, "What?" If he questioned it, it might turn out to not be real after all.

Mai's Mother broke the silence. "Of course, as clever as this bit of legal manipulation is, there's no reason not to take the idea of a betrothal seriously. Proposals also serve as a declaration of intent, so Mai’s relationship status is safe for the time being." Everyone looked at her. "Well, at least keep an open mind. That's all I'm saying."

Tom-Tom gave a little whimper. "Mai marry Zuzo?"

Ty Lee gave a wistful sigh, but it was Mai herself who answered. "That's still up in the air, squirt. We've just been playing a very adult but not particularly fun game that involves lots of writing names on papers."

Tom-Tom looked at his sister, and then looked over at Zuko. Zuko would have liked to explain everything, but could only offer the child a helpless shrug. Tom-Tom put his head in his hands and said, "Icon fused."

Zuko silently agreed.






29 - Forgiveness

After so much time spent seeking out dark, shadowy places and (yes, okay) sulking, Zuko found it almost exhilarating to be standing on the roof of the Earth Palace (strange that Azula hadn't renamed it yet) and looking out over a sun-drenched city. He could almost forget that a third of that city had tried to kill him forty-eight hours ago, and would be more than happy to put his head on a pike of both his head and a pike conveniently became available.

His banishment was well and truly over.

He could go home.

He should feel good. He should be happy, optimistic, like normal people who weren’t banished or being crushed beneath the Fire Nation’s unforgiving heel. He should be past caring about Uncle's betrayal, or Azula's tendency to betray people, or the fact that he still hadn't heard from Father.

Mostly, he just felt alone.

From his vantage point, Zuko could see dark clouds gathering on the horizon. He had experienced quite a bit of weather during his three years at sea, and to his eye, there was plenty of rain and cool air coming, but no thunder or storming. The early heat would be retreating just as the summer actually began, but the Fire Nation's presence would not be dimmed as easily.

No longer enjoying the view, Zuko headed back inside.




Mai had invented a new game to play with her brother. She lounged on the couch in her mother's suite's parlor while Tom-Tom ran around the room like a hog-monkey on chi-enhancing tea, and when he calmed down enough to realize that she was ignoring him, she used her masterful skill at throwing things really hard to bean him in the head with a rolled-up sock. Tom-Tom, for some reason, thought this was hilarious, and his excitement would soon send him running around again. Mai wasn't about to disabuse him of his primitive idea of entertainment, lest she be required to actually get up and move around in pursuit of him.

A knock on the door surprised Tom-Tom in mid-dash and caused him to fall into a rolling tumble across the carpet. This, too, he found hilarious, or else he just forgot how to do anything but giggle, so Mai left him lying on the ground and went to see to her visitor.

She opened the door to reveal Zuko. He smiled when he saw her. "Hi."

Mai shut the door.

She was halfway back to her couch when he resumed knocking. Mai considered ignoring it, but then Tom-Tom sat up. "Mai! Knock-knock on door again!"

"Yes, I've noticed."

He stared at her, and when she didn't change her course, he pointed at the door. "Knock-knock."

"All right, I'll get it. Will that make you happy?"

"Is Zuzo?"

"Yes."

Tom-Tom shrugged with indifference. Smart kid.

The knocking only continued, and Mai finally decided that she wasn't going to be able to relax while that kept up, and Zuko had been looking lately to get a sketch of his face placed next to the word 'stubborn' in the Royal Fire Book of Approved Words that Glorify Our Nation. Mai went and opened the door again. "What do you want?"

He seemed to have noticed the glare Mai was throwing at him, but as usual, he proved incapable of taking a hint. "Um, I wanted to tell you that I've come to a decision."

"Congratulations. Was that your first?"

"What? No, I mean... I've decided that I'm going back to the Fire Nation."

Mai applauded as sarcastically as she could, but behind her, Tom-Tom missed the tone and started clapping his hands with typical two-year-old sincerity.

Zuko looked utterly confused (as usual), but continued, "I was thinking about what you said about hiding, and since Azula proved that there's no problem with my going back, it would be dishonorable to stay here and hide from everything. Azula will be taking Uncle back with her to be imprisoned, and Father... and, um, I got the impression that you were going back with Azula?"

Mai gave a single, sharp nod.

Zuko's gaze fell to the floor. "So, um, I thought I'd let you know that I'm going back. With you. So... well... do you have anything to say about that?"

As a matter of fact, Mai very much did: "Azula's. Spy."

Zuko blinked. "What?"

"That's what you said. When you asked Azula why she had submitted a proposal for our betrothal. Your exact words to your sister were, 'Are you trying to make sure that you'll always have a spy right next to me?' I remember that quite clearly."

Zuko's jaw had dropped when she recited the quote, and now his mouth had formed a perfect 'O'-shape. "Uh... I didn't mean-"

"Sure you didn't. Because that's such an ambiguous statement. Terms like 'spy' can have so many different meanings, after all."

"No! I meant- well, yes, that's what the word means, but- I didn't mean to say that you're actually spying for her!"

Mai crossed her arms over her chest. "What you really meant is that you don't actually trust me."

Zuko's mouth opened. Then it closed again.

Mai felt a tug on her pants, and when she looked down at Tom-Tom, he said, "You and Zuzo fighting?"

"Zuko has shown that he'll never accept my offer of friendship without wondering whether I'm executing Azula's agenda."

Zuko actually growled, and couched down to look Tom-Tom in the face. "That's not true! I'll always value Mai and her friendship and anything else we have together, but she's certainly got a funny of way of proving herself trustworthy when she distracted me from Azula's little game like a good little minion!"

Mai crouched down beside Tom-Tom to properly compete for his attention. "Zuko seems to have missed that even though Azula was being her usual control-freak self, both of us were actually trying to help him and maybe he shouldn't start calling people names for not standing up to his crazy sister until he's ready to risk that type of thing himself."

"Mai seems to have missed that you can't be a friend if you're serving someone else who constantly lies and competes with your friend!"

"Zuko seems to be selectively aware that in the real world ideals like that are just going to get him killed!"

"Mai seems to... uh... be stubborn!"

"Zuko seems to have lost all ability to argue coherently, probably because he’s wrong and he knows it."

Tom-Tom glanced back and forth between Mai and Zuko, and then finally shook his head. "You fight. I go potty." He then walked away, leaving them crouching in the doorway together and looking absolutely ridiculous.

Mai looked at Zuko.

Zuko looked at Mai.

Both of them startled chuckling at the same time.

They stood up as one, and Zuko said, "I'm sorry. It's not that I don't trust you. But Azula just makes me..."

"Ridiculously anxious? Irrational? Paranoid?"

"...wary."

Mai nodded. "Well, I forgive you. She does tend to have that effect on people. And I'm sorry if you thought I was manipulating you. But you understand that I'm not in a position where I can refuse to humor your sister, right?"

Zuko sighed. "I do. I don't like it, but..."

"But you hate everything anyway."

His lips moved in what was almost a smile. "I don't hate you."

Mai found a smirk pulling on her own lips. "I don't hate you, too."

"So, is that how it works? We’re friends again" Mai shrugged and nodded, and then realizing that they were still in the doorway, she moved aside. Zuko walked into the parlor and looked around at all the rolled socks littering the floor before apparently deciding that he didn't need to know, and turned back to Mai. "Like I said, I'm going back to the Fire Nation. I- I guess I need to."

Mai nodded. "I... think that's a good decision."

"Good." Zuko took a step closer to her, and Mai did some quick calculations regarding distance, angles, and speed of motion. If Zuko was about to say what certain parts of her very much hoped he was going to say- and he actually managed to stay on script for once- those calculations might come in handy, and not for their typical use with the throwing of knives. "It will be easier to stay friends if we can actually be friends to each other."

"Yeah. But..." Zuko looked down, and clenched his fists. Mai dearly hoped he wasn't about to start Firebending in his anxiety; that would utterly kill the mood. "You've been... so great to me, these last few days. I don't know why you're interested in me, but... I realized that I like that you're interested in me. And I'm interested. In you, I mean."

Mai's heart decided to take a half-second break from its typical beating hobby. "Oh. Good."

"You're pretty-“ Mai had to bite down on a gasp, as no one had ever said that to her before- “but... it's not just that you're pretty. Jin is pretty. And Ty Lee. Lots of girls are pretty. But I had no idea how to talk to Jin, and turns out that she murders people when she gets mad." Zuko's eyes narrowed. "Do you murder people when you get mad?"

Mai just smiled.

Zuko swallowed audibly. "Well, anyway... girls like Ty Lee... Ty Lee just makes me want to light things on fire."

Mai nodded. "Perfectly understandable. If I hadn't hung out with your sister for six months after Ty joined the circus, I'd be wondering if Azula's pyromania wasn't just a reaction to talk about auras."

"Right. But you... I came down her to tell you my decision because when I made it, the first thing I thought was that I wanted to come down and share it with you. To see what you thought, because I value your advice. I didn't think too much about it at first, but when I did, I realized that I thought it'd make you happy, and I wanted to see that. And I thought that maybe something good could come from telling you."

Mai tapped her chin. "What, were you hoping for a reward?"

"Um, no." Zuko frowned. "I mean... you're the perfect friend for me, but I realized that... what you want... to be more than friends... is I think what I want, too, now that I know how it would work."

Mai was just about to declare her acceptance and proceed to throw Zuko down on the floor as the beginning of further demonstration of her acceptance, but then he kept talking: "But I'm worried that it's still a terrible idea. Stuff like me calling you Azula's spy... that's going to keep happening. I'm not... I think you could probably say that I'm an idiot."

Mai found herself nodding.

"And I'm pretty much expecting to ruin my life again somehow. Probably soon. I don't know how, but... I'm being realistic." He gave a sigh that deflated his whole body. "It could be bad enough to ruin your life, too. And if that does happen, it would probably be a good idea for you to side with Azula and do something to betray me. And I think you would, if it came to that."

Mai felt her jaw drop.

Zuko looked into her eyes, and squared his shoulders. "So, I wanted to ask you... do you think this is a good idea? I really mean it; I didn't know who else to ask. You're the only one I trust to answer it. So, do you?"

Mai started to answer with an immediate dismal and request that Zuko do something romantically scandalous to her, but then she stopped. Did she think it was a good idea? No, of course she didn't. Whenever she really thought about it, the answer came clearly to her. Ty Lee was right; Zuko was a walking disaster. She was attracted to him, sure, but she wasn't in love. Nor was her in love with her, and he had demonstrated that she was a low priority in his life. He was only coming to her now because indulging in this was now convenient. And now he was putting it all on her- making her choose to jump into what was clearly a bad idea. Could she forgive herself if (when?) it all crashed and burned like the time Azula had tried driving one of those newfangled tanks?

But he had already chosen, in his way. He had decided the course of his life, and was offering to include her in it. He wanted her, and was willing to try for her, despite his misgivings.

It would be a conscious choice for both of them.

Mai sighed. "Of course I do. But before I commit, can I try one thing?"

"Sure?"

Mai reached out, grabbed Zuko, yanked him close to her, and mashed her lips against his. It was wet, and awkward, and stressful, and oh so enjoyable. Mai pressed harder, and found that things fit together better the less she thought about it all, which was convenient, because her thoughts seemed to be having trouble finding purchase in her conscious.

When they broke apart, Mai couldn't help but grin. "Huh. No wonder everyone wants to do that so much."

Zuko seemed to be having trouble breathing. "That was unexpectedly... intense."

"Exactly! All right, I'm committed. I, Mai, take you, Zuko, to be my official boy toy. Now let's doing more of that kissing thing."

"Okay."

This time it lasted even longer, despite Tom-Tom chiming in halfway through with a loud, screeching, "Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!"






30 - Black

Once Mai and Zuko decided that they were going to make a go of this coupling thing, they embarked on a whirlwind romance.

Except Ty Lee had once met an Airbender who threw an actual whirlwind right in her face, so she wasn't really using the word as a complement.

"I have never," she was explaining, "seen two people go so fast from that blushing and foot-shuffling phase into hardcore make-outs so quickly. I get the feeling that maybe they were both kind of repressed, you know?"

Her audience didn't look impressed by this revelation.

Ty Lee ignored that, though, because her audience hadn't been impressed by anything she said yet, but she wasn't done talking and so there was still hope to end the one-sided conversation on a good note. She just nodded a response to her own question before continuing. "And they seem happy when they're kissing and fondling each other, but you can already see that it's all little messed up. Zuko is still Zuko and can't stop looking at his own problems and anxieties, but now he has Mai to complain to instead of just moping, but talking to her doesn't really make him feel better about his problems. She's just a way to ignore them for a while and rationalize the way he's feeling!"

Ty Lee checked to see if her conversational partner had anything to add, but that battle had not yet been won. "And I can tell he's not really any happier, because his aura is still mostly black. There's a little red that flares whenever he's in physical contact with Mai, but I don't need to tell you what that means." Then, because she very much wanted to tell what that meant, she leaned forward and whispered, "Here's a hint, it's not love."

She stood upright again, and put her hands on her hips. "I know this is going to be a disaster, just like I warned Mai. I'll be there to comfort her, of course. I really want her to be genuinely happy for reasons other than satisfying all those physical urges she's been suppressing. And if she and Zuko really want to fix themselves and try to make it work, then I'll do everything I can to help! I'm not even mad at Zuko about all this. I'd happily have him over for sleep-overs, if you know what I mean, once he's single again. I just wish he would get over himself long enough to actually try to be a good boyfriend to Mai."

Ty Lee sighed, a World-Weary #6 that Mai had taught her in exchange for lessons on winking at people. "I'll go to the Fire Nation to be there for them and also be on call for this Eclipse thingy (Azula says she has a really important job for me and that the Capital's entire defense will 'hinge on my actions,' and that's just great!), but I can tell this is just going to be depressing. I think I'll give Mai and Zuko their alone time, and wait for the... what do you call it? The thing that's definitely going to happen? Exevitable? Anyway, I'm just going to wait for that. I don't want this getting my own aura muddied. Can you imagine me with a black aura? I'd have to dye my hair and paint my nails to match."

Ty Lee waited to see if her audience had any reaction to that awful, awful image, but he didn't even move. In fact, now that Ty Lee looked, she wasn't even sure that his eyes were open.

At that moment, Azula's voice rang out over the docks. "Ty Lee, I told you to guard my uncle, not sing him gently to sleep! Slap him and wake him up, we're ready to transfer him on the ship now!"

Oopsy.




Azula watched carefully as Iroh was dragged up ship's ramp, his chains clanking the whole way. She was a little disappointed that he wasn't making any attempt at an escape. She still hadn't found the opportunity to fight him one-on-one, and since she had been forced to rely on a distraction to take him out at the end of their previous encounter, she really wanted the chance to prove that she was better than him in every way- mentally, physically, intellectually, and Zuzu-caretakingly.

Her brother actually pulled his nose out of Mai's hair long enough to watch Uncle's transfer to the ship that would take them all back to the Fire Nation.

Azula couldn't help but smile at the sight of this victory. Zuzu was going back to the Fire Nation, he and Mai were in a relationship that would keep him occupied in such a manner that she could control if she ever felt the need, and Azula had learned much about the mating habits of humans. She still wasn't quite sure what the 'mating' in question was, but she got some of the habits down, at least. She looked forward to putting them into action and demonstrating a perfect implementation of the concept.

She'd also have to keep an eye on the new couple. Azula trusted Mai to report any major problems or successes, but Mai was a shy girl when she wasn't stabbing people, so no doubt she would seek to withhold some of the messier details of the relationship. Mai's wants were immaterial next to Azula's though, and Azula needed to observe this experiment of hers.

With any luck, it would progress to the point where it would finally teach her where babies come from. Despite the supposed ubiquity of that information, the creation of new humans was still a black box to Azula, and all she could do was eliminate theories one by one.

Maybe she could trick the information out of Zuko.

In a strictly sisterly way, of course.




With the old Fuddy Duddy Iroh loaded on the ship, it was finally time to go. Mai turned to Zuko and gave him a kiss. "I'm going to say goodbye to my mother, now."

Zuko kissed her back. "Okay. I'll meet you on the deck."

Mai kissed him back. "Okay. See you there."

Zuko kissed her back.

Mai kissed him back.

Zuko kissed her back.

Mai grabbed his face, yanked it close to hers, and began making out with him right there on the docks.

They only stopped when Mother rather loudly cleared her throat, apparently having gotten tired of waiting for Mai to come over and impart some parting words. Mai finally pulled away from Zuko, and waved him off. Mother was waiting just behind them with a weary expression on her face and Tom-Tom in her arms. The toddler had his eyes shut tight and was making gagging noises.

Mai crossed her arms over her chest. "What?"

"Really, Mai, I'm glad you're actually putting some effort into this, but try to pace yourself. You want to string him along all the way marriage, not wear him out just a few weeks in."

Mai sighed. "I'm not stringing him along. We're in a relationship. It will either work out, or I'm going to kill him and leave his body in public as a warning to others."

"Oh, please don't do that. It will ruin your prospects."

Mai wasn't sure if Mother was trying to joke, and elected to just ignore it. "So, I guess this is goodbye for now. Tell Father to have fun with his stupid city."

"I will. I'll also tell him you wished him good health and sent your love, because I'm apparently willing to lie for you."

"Eh, don't bother. He won't be fooled." Mai shifted her gaze to Tom-Tom. "See you later, squirt. Learn how to talk right by the next time I see you."

Tom-Tom reached out his hands for her. "Mai! I love you! Don't go! Stay with me and play! You my favorite!"

"More than Ty Lee?"

"...Mai and Tlee both favorite!"

"You're going to grow up to be a politician, I can tell." To get out of having to give him a hug, Mai reached out and give him a single pat on the head that she tried to make affectionate. Tom-Tom intercepted her hand, though, and yanked it down to give it a kiss that was half lips and half saliva. "Oh, yuck."

Mother tittered. "Well, it's what you've been teaching him about kissing. Take it as a lesson in moderation. Oh, and one other thing!"

Mai sighed. "What?"

Mother leaned forward and whispered, "If you find that you're... very suddenly putting on weight in a manner that will keep Zuko tied to you for life... black is very slimming and an excellent way to avoid unnecessary gossip for a few extra months, hm?"

"Oh, Mother! You're disgusting."

And so Mai parted from her family and went back to the land of her birth. The land where she intended to set a new record for sucking face, with the willing help of her new boyfriend.

Ha!




Zuko watched as the Earth Kingdom shores receded into the distance, the view swallowed up by the sea below and the black rain clouds above. He tried to feel better about it, but now that he thought about things, he wasn't entirely sure this was the best idea. Yes, his banishment might be over, but would Father really accept him again? He technically hadn't defeated the Avatar, just helped Azula kill him (most likely), and while the Fire Nation might be willing to overlook the issue in the interest of having another hero to fete, would Father be as forgiving? Would his personal dishonor, like his scar, be with him forever?

The woman in his arms stirred, and Zuko was suddenly reminded that he had a woman in his arms. Mai looked up at him and stroked his face. "You feel like you're about to settle into another moping-fest again."

Zuko found himself smiling. "You can feel that?"

"Of course. Your breathing gets slower and you start slumping in a way that would have my mother lecturing you on proper posture."

Zuko shook his head. "Good thing you're here to point these things out for me, then."

Mai smiled, a wide smile that looked both alien and strangely at home on her face. "Good thing."

Then they kissed, of course.

Zuko would go back to the Fire Nation, and face whatever waited for him there. He would have Mai, at least, even if he had nothing else.

For a while, at least.






31 - Climax

Dear Mai,

I'm sorry that you have to find out this way, but I'm leaving. We've become so much closer since Ember Island, yet it still wasn't enough. We both knew that there were bigger problems in our lives, and it's come time for me to face my own.

It would break my heart, but I hope this isn't as important to you as it is to me. I hope you can rely on Ty Lee and your family to help you get over me. (I know Azula is your friend, but I left her out on purpose. She is a jerk.) I have to go find the Avatar and make up for all the mistakes I've made, or at least those many mistakes that don't involve how I've treated you (which are also probably too numerous to count). I'm hoping that together the Avatar's friends can stop my father from lighting the whole Earth Kingdom on fire, because I've realized that wiping out entire countries is evil. (I hope you agree.) Even if we do, I don't know that I'll ever be able to return to the Fire Nation. Even if I can, I'm sure that you won't want someone in your life who treats you the way I do. Ty Lee was right all along, except for anything she said about my butt.

I want to tell you to find someone who you can not hate just as much, if not more, than me. However, as I thought about writing that down, I realized that you would hunt me down and stab me in the eyes for being so clichéd. So I'm not going to say it. Consider it hinted at, nothing more.

Again, I'm sorry. For everything.

-Zuko, Son of Ursa and Nephew of Iroh

P.S. I moved the clothes and knives you left at the palace to their own wardrobe. I told the servants to let you pick them up at your convenience, but since I'm now a traitor to the Fire Nation and my father probably will want to kill me, there might be some paperwork involved. Get Azula to help with that; she deserves it.





The whole time Zuko was gone, Mai hated him. It was said by some, mostly people with far too much time on their hands, that hate and love were two sides of the same coin. Mai disagreed.

She did not love Zuko.

She never loved Zuko.

She had been clear about that from the start.

Nevertheless, he had hurt her. He hurt her when he left. He hurt her when she realized that he been hiding so much of himself from her. He hurt her when he left an ashing note because she apparently was such a low priority in his life that he couldn't even find the time to give her a goodbye kiss. He hurt her because the note was clear that she had been a distraction, nothing more, and even though she had specifically presented herself as such when she was first trying to get him interested in her, it was still rude of him to admit it.

Thus, Mai was at something of a loss to explain why- after Zuko had been caught at the Boiling Rock and came close to dying in his escape attempt- Mai had betrayed everything to save his life. He had even just reiterated everything in his letter, before all the action. The concept of 'temporary insanity' was the only explanation she could think of, but Azula wasn't the type to give mercy for extenuating circumstances.

That much had been clear when the princess said, "I never expected this from you. The thing I don't understand is 'why.' Why would you do it? You know the consequences."

Mai knew the consequences. And yet, for a most mysterious reason, she had accepted them in order to save the life of a boy who she had wanted as nothing more than a toy. She had broken the agreement she and Zuko had made when they first decided to get together, that Azula specifically was something they would grudgingly allow to come between them.

Facing off against Azula from the other side of the gondola launch platform, with Ty Lee standing between them watching with terrified eyes, Mai realized she was about to die. Azula was going to kill her. She was going to die by her friend's hand for Zuko's sake.

Mother would be profoundly disappointed.

Mai, though, couldn't help but want to take Azula with her. She still had some knives, and was familiar enough with Azula's fighting style to know that there would be a massive, lazy half-second window in which she could fatally wound the princess before being incinerated herself.

And she wanted to.

Not out of spite.

Not for revenge.

Not even out of general contrariness.

She wanted to kill Azula so that Zuko wouldn't be in danger from his sister.

And in that moment, realizing that she valued Zuko more than her own life, Mai realized that hate was indeed just another way of shading love.

She loved Zuko.

She loved Zuko.

She had never intended it to get like this so quickly, but it had happened. She had fallen in love with her boyfriend, and that love was about to kill her. That love had reached into the past, going all the way to the time she had first set eyes on him when they were both just children, and began murdering her one little bit of a time.

Mai was about to die the death of a thousand cuts.

A thousand cuts, but a single love.

Azula took a stance and began moving to summon the fire, while Mai tensed and pulled a blade into her hand.

FADE TO BLACK

Mai went on to be saved by Ty Lee, and both of them were incarcerated by Azula. Accounts differ about where they were jailed and what happened on their subsequent adventures with the similarly imprisoned Kyoshi Warriors. By the time Avatar Korra died and reincarnated, no less than thirty different film adaptations of those events had been produced, one of which starred Li Kwan as Mai and won the actress an Association Award for best performance in a musical. Mai’s descendants condemned the film for portraying their honorable ancestor as singing and dancing at a time when both were outlawed in the Fire Nation.

Zuko went on to train Avatar Aang in Firebending, and help him overthrow Fire Lord Ozai. Zuko was crowned and ruled over a new era in Fire Nation history. Historians themselves will continue to debate, for hundreds of years after Zuko's death, how he could have made so many absolute blunders all throughout his life and still ended up with a world that more or less conformed to his ideal vision of it. Mai was almost certainly involved in that.

Zuko and Mai got back together after Ozai's fall, and embarked on a romance that actually acknowledged that, in addition to not hating each other, they both really loved each other.

They broke up again a year later.

They got back together some time after that.

They are believed to have gotten together and broken up again at least fifteen more times, but historians are still trying to sort that out. All agree, though, that it was entirely Zuko's fault.

Every time.

But those are other stories.

END
Death of a Thousand Cuts 5
Next: Death of a Thousand Cuts Bonus
Previous: Death of a Thousand Cuts 4

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 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
Next: Death of a Thousand Cuts 5
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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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's Profile Picture
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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:iconsallynight22:
SallyNight22 Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2014  Hobbyist Artist
Danke for the Llama!
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:iconloopy777:
Loopy777 Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2014
My pleasure!
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:iconsilversteam11:
silversteam11 Featured By Owner Nov 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Ahhh! Death of a Thousand Cuts is over! D: Oh well.. it was good while it lasted. Usually I read Maiko fan fictions that show her fun side, but this one was so good and funny I couldn't stop reading :)
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:iconloopy777:
Loopy777 Featured By Owner Nov 28, 2014
I'm glad you enjoyed it! I also like Maiko that lets the two have a little fun, but suffering is the heart of comedy. :D Thanks for your support of the story, and the llama!
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:iconsilversteam11:
silversteam11 Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Your welcome! 
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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.
Reply
: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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:iconkz-jello:
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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:iconholotwins:
holotwins Featured By Owner Apr 6, 2014  Student Artist
Thanks for the Llama Badge.
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:iconkillerbat13:
killerbat13 Featured By Owner Mar 3, 2014
np... i love it :D
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:iconcrazylilbit:
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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