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?"
"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?"
"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."
"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."
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."
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!"
Ty Lee ran over to the toddler and picked him up. "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!"
"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."
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."
"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."
"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?"
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."
"His companion. You know, doing companion stuff?"
"Princess Azula hired me."
"My name is Jin."
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 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."
"Out the window."
"Why? What am I looking for?"
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:
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-"
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