From the Fire Nation with Love
It was interesting what Mai could tell about the elite of Yu Dao from their arms.
She moved through the Grand Hallway of the Morishita Mansion arm in arm with Sokka, traveling the length of the main party room towards the massive staircase on the far side. Thanks to many sharp words from her mother, Mai had learned how to observe without being observed in turn, and as she employed that skill now, she was almost tempted to thank Mother for the training. It was the arms of the people that told Mai the most.
Anyone with no red in their clothing tended to bare thick, strong arms, obviously born of spending years pounding metal with a hammer. Even the oldest, fattest, and wealthiest-looking had arms that still showed a good shape, a strengthening of the muscles that would never go away. Interestingly, a visible number of older men and women in red also frequently chose to wear short or no sleeves, and showed off the same well-honed muscles. Mai guessed that they were the kind of bosses who put in the work alongside their employees. Most people in red, though, wore sleeves as long as Mai's and had a decidedly soft shape to their bodies.
There were no younger people without red somewhere in their outfits, and their arms tended to be lean and solid. Their generation obviously didn't toil with metal and fire, but they were apparently active nonetheless; Mai recalled how Kori had swung around that meteor hammer with ease and skill.
Sokka's murmuring broke through Mai's thoughts. "Watcha looking at?"
"I'm checking out the cute boys, of course."
"Oh, of course." Sokka looked around. "See Zuko anywhere?"
"No, he's likely hiding upstairs until his big speech." Mai glanced over at her escort, examining how he fit into this crowd. In his Lover persona, he kept his back straight enough to get minimal approval from her mother, and he didn't stomp around like he was marching across a snow drift or whatever they did down at the South Pole. He blended in rather well, actually, and he looked quite sharp in his fancy jacket. He didn't lose anything to the other young men and women in attendance, and he filled out his clothes nicely with the confidence of a soldier.
Yes, Mother would approve. At least minimally.
Mai found that she approved as well.
She didn't let her thoughts go further, but she clung to his arm and enjoyed the warmth of his body, because that was all part of their personas. Besides, any girls who saw Mai so close would let their eyes drift away from Sokka, and there was no point in courting any extra attention.
It was so different from the old days, when Azula's every action was a cry for attention, and Ty Lee's every outfit was a cry for attention, and Mai's every sigh was a cry for mercy.
"There's the Mayor," Sokka said. He twitched his chin over to the left, and sure enough, Mayor Morishita was a short distance away, chatting animatedly- one might say desperately- with several people in red and gold. "If he's here hanging out, then it must be a while before Zuko makes his appearance. Or else hosting visiting warlords is done differently in the colonies."
"Some protocols are universal. At least we know where Zuko will make his appearance. He's has always been about drama
, and I doubt he's changed that much. He'll appear at the top of the staircase and speak from on high to us lowly colonists."
"You know where the best spot is to keep an eye on things?"
"A rope hanging from the ceiling?"
Sokka frowned. "Okay, that is a good idea, but a little impractical in the current situation. I was thinking more the dance floor." Mai's grip on Sokka's arm tightened, and he let out a little grunt of pain. "What? You know I'm right."
Mai turned to glare at him. "Sokka, I'm Fire Nation. I've seen dancing while working for Iroh, but I don't do it. I've never even formally trained how to fight, never mind something like that. I would look awkward
"...and that's bad?" He actually tried to smile at her. "Mai, it's okay. This isn't anything complicated, this is for rich people. Even Toph learned how to dance, and she doesn't need her Earthsense for it. You just hold your partner and sway gently to the music. It's like pretending to be a piece of grass in a breeze. You're way smarter than grass, right?"
Mai couldn't break cover by taking out a knife in a threatening manner, so she settled for more glaring. "Stop using questions as traps."
"Hey, I'm a hunter, trapping is easier than poking you with a pointy stick." His arm stiffened in Mai's grasp, and he quickly added, "Don't think too much about that one. Anyway, it will be fine. You're all balanced and stuff, so you just shift your weight from foot to foot, and move around in the same direction as everyone else. Seriously, walking is harder; you'll probably look smoother than I will. And we'll be in the perfect position to see when Zuko is coming."
Mai had run out of rational objections, and reducing herself to irrationality would be even worse than looking awkward.
Besides, this wasn't one of Azula's games, and Sokka wasn't Zuko. Maybe the process wouldn't be utterly humiliating, and at least she would get to spend some time in the arms of a handsome man, even if it was a friend and for business.
"All right, fine. Sweep me off my feet, or whatever."
Not three steps into the simple dance, Mai utterly mastered it, and Sokka avoided a stabbing by successfully suppressing the urge to stick his face in hers and remind her that he totally 'toldja so.' Instead, he divided his attention between moving rhythmically with Mai and keeping any eye on their surroundings.
Sokka kept an eye on the guards, of course, but he also caught the wolfish glances the young men were throwing Mai's way. He pulled her a little closer as they moved to the music. No sense messing with wolf-people.
Fire Colony dancing was weird. Back home at the South Pole, dances were pretty much just a part of celebrations or gatherings of the whole tribe, and it was done as a group. Or so Sokka had been taught; that kind of thing had pretty much died out after the Tribe began drifting apart, and Sokka had only vague memories of such things that he wasn't even sure were real. When he had visited the Northern Water Tribe with Aang and Katara, Sokka had actually been able to see the real thing, and it had looked pretty good, but he hadn't been able to summon the nerve to try. He had been too worried about looking awkward
in front of Yue. Things weren't that different in most of the Earth Kingdom, although their stuff involved a lot more stomping. The regular folk danced at faster paces than the rich folk in Gaoling and Ba Sing Se, but it was all the same kind of stuff.
It was the Fire Nation that did things differently. They didn't just dance in groups, they also liked to partner up and do unique two-person dancing. Sometimes the partners held each other and sometimes they simply danced next to each other. Aang said that the entire Fire Nation used to love dancing, but nowadays it only happened in the colonies. Sokka had been able to observe the styles during his travels in support of the Harmony Restoration Movement, but with he and Suki apart, he had never really tried it.
Mai was his first true dance partner.
He had to be careful where he put his hands, not just for the usual reasons, but also because she was still liberally covered in knives. It was the type of challenge that Sokka almost hated enjoying so much.
He and Mai spun around in step with the other dancers, and then drew together. Mai leaned in and whispered, "The soldiers guarding the stairway are shifting their positions, and the Mayor just disentangled himself from a conversation. Zuko's probably ready to appear."
Sokka nodded. "Then let's go. Good luck, Lover."
Mai showed half a smile, and then the pair drifted apart in opposite directions. Sokka made his way to the edge of the hall, knowing that Mai would be doing the same. According to Kori, the main staircase was not the only way to the upper floors. There were smaller sets of stairs on each side of the house, away where only the house's servants would be hanging around. As Sokka moved towards a door that would take him out of the hall, one of those servants moved to intercept him with a concerned expression, but as soon as the man drew close Sokka leaned forward and whispered, "Moonraker."
At the agreed-upon code word, the servant stopped, nodded, and smoothly moved away. Sokka continued on, made sure that no one was watching as Mayor Morishita called for everyone's attention. The last thing he heard before he slipped through the door was the introduction for 'the guest of honor,' a title that Sokka bet would make Zuko giddy.
The room beyond was dark, lit only by the glow that came in through the modern glass-covered windows.
Sokka only looked around enough to make sure that he wouldn't be tripping over any furniture. This? This was Room #1
. Sokka expanded out the mental model he had created based on Kori's directions. Room #1
led to similarly unlit Room #2
and Room Pointless. Sokka passed through to the former, skipping Pointless entirely because duh
, and then moved down The Hallway Shaped Like a Tundra Cat's Hind Tibia-Bone. At the end of the hallway on the right, there was an expected door, and Sokka finally reached Room #3
. He immediately slipped behind a large cabinet by the door, and then peeked out to make sure that he was alone. Like the others, Room #3
was dark and empty of everything but treacherous furniture. The staircase was in the far corner, a winding little affair that would carry Sokka up to further victory. He stepped out and began moving to the stairs-
-and a heavy hand clamped down on Sokka's shoulder.
Sokka immediately spun around and found himself face-to-face with a man in Fire Army armor with a massive chin. He looked at Sokka with knowing eyes and a hard-featured expression, and said, "What are you doing here?"
In the dim light, Sokka thought he caught the glint of metal in the man's mouth as he spoke.
"I- well, you see, I was-"
"And so help me, if you lie that you were looking for the bathroom..." The man gave a toothy grin, and Sokka could definitely see now that his teeth were covered in shining metal. What the slush?! How do teeth get covered in metal?!
Sokka slowly took a step back. "Come on, it's a good excuse because it's also the reason someone is most likely to be lost in someone else's house. Or are you not invited over enough to know that?"
Metal Teeth's grin grew strained, lips pulling even further away from those freaky teeth. Sokka slowly shifted his hands so that he could slip Boomerang out from under his jacket-
-when Kori said, "Lee, there you are. I told you, the bathroom was on the left.
The man's grin immediately faded, and Sokka took the opportunity to step around the guy and scoot over to the safety of Kori's presence. She was dressed for the party, of course, in one of those two-piece things that Mai had absolutely refused to put on, and her hair was done up in an even fancier style than usual with a mix of ribbons and chopstick-like thingies. "Thanks for finding me. You told me this place could be confusing, but you didn't say army guys were patrolling the first floor.
Kori gave a smile that Sokka decided looked almost chagrined enough. "Sorry, I didn't know. And I don't think we've been introduced, Commander- ?"
"Baji. Commander Baji." He gave a small smile that kept his teeth hidden. "Pleased to officially make your acquaintance, Lady Morishita. This is your guest?"
"Yes, Commander. Lee is an old friend of mine. What are you doing in this section of the house? The Fire Regent's suite is several floors up."
"Ensuring security, of course. The Prince Regent is gracing this colony with his presence, and there have never been more people in this residence. Since your friend here has proven how easily it is to wander into unsafe
areas, I think I'll be ordering more of my soldiers on patrol. As family to our host, I'm sure you want your ruler to stay safe."
Kori hesitated before she gave a shallow bow. "I defer to your experience and my father's
"Of course." Baji gave a bow of his own, and then turned his gaze to Sokka. Baji's lips twitched. "You better get going. Your friend still needs to find that bathroom." He turned and made for the staircase.
Sokka waved a goodbye to the creepy guy and followed Kori out of the room. As soon as he was sure they were away safely, he exhaled some of the tension from his body. "Thanks for the save."
"I'm just glad I saw you making your move and decided to play backup."
Sokka shook his head. "I kind of wish you had gone after Mai, instead. This guy is going to put more guards out, and that could be trouble for her. I could have made do somehow. But, um, I'm still grateful for the help."
He hoped Mai didn't run into trouble.
Mai shot another soporific blade from beneath her sleeve, dropping the soldier up the hall before he could so much as focus his eyes on her. In the dark hallway of the third floor of the Morishita mansion, Mai couldn't help but smirk and whisper, "I love trouble."
There were more soldiers than expected, for some reason, but it was nothing she couldn't handle. The hardest part was actually remembering Kori's directions to the rear staircase. She and Sokka had taken different routes, just to be sure that one of them got to Zuko. With the initial delay, Mai was worried that Sokka was going to beat her to the Fire Regent's suite, but she was having too much fun to let it really get to her.
She dragged the unconscious soldier to an empty room off of the hallway, and continued on her way.
She turned a corner, and the echo of Zuko's voice washed over her:
"...call upon the masters of Yu Dao to stand firm with me. I am as committed as you to decreasing hostilities with the Earth Kingdom, and this situation is just a small bump on the road to peace..."
As Mai moved further down the hallway, she found the source of Zuko's speech (which someone had obviously written for him). There were window-like openings in the wall that revealed the hall where the party was taking place. Zuko was standing at the top of the massive main staircase, exactly between the two smaller sets of stairs that would take him up to the third floor. A squad of soldiers lined the steps below to keep anyone in the crowd from approaching the Prince Regent, and the lights had been dimmed down on the first floor so that Zuko glowed from on high like the sun. It was all ridiculously pretentious, and from her vantage point a floor up from him, Mai thought that Zuko looked stiff and awkward. Azula had always been better at this type of thing.
Not interested in the official line, Mai moved on while Zuko prattled on.
"...thank you for your cooperation with the Fire Army's honorable soldiers, and once again assure you that this situation is temporary, and will end with a peaceful resolution..."
Sokka and Kori paused within good ol' Room #1
, just off from the main hall. Zuko was going on with his speech, and Sokka had to admit that Angry Guy was doing better with it than Sokka himself probably would have done. The very thought of standing up in front of a crowd and having to talk and be all charismatic and stuff was enough to sour his stomach. That made two things- sneaking and speechifying- that Zuko did better than Sokka.
He really, really hoped that Zuko was also better at leading a country than Sokka would be.
Kori turned to look at Sokka, and her eyes practically glowed in the ambient light. "Do you think he means any of it?"
Sokka shrugged. "I worked with the guy twice, once in Ba Sing Se so that we could both stay alive, and then at the fancy meeting in Caldera City when Aang and all our big shot friends offered to trade the Fire Nation's captured land back in exchange for the colonies and the end to the war. He's a terrible liar, but notice how a lot of what he's saying now is vague and isn't anything close to a real explanation. He's playing for more time. In that sense, he's probably sincere enough."
Kori nodded, and went back to listening. Zuko barely got through the announcement of another shipment of food and supplies that would be distributed tomorrow, though, before Kori gave a heavy sigh with her whole body. "It's not just Zuko who's worrying me. I'm scared of what the people here will do."
That caught Sokka's attention. "You think they might rebel?"
"Not really. We've learned to get by, and the citizens- all of them- love my father. As long as he stays calm, everyone else will do the same. I'm worried about-" She stopped abruptly. "Can I trust you? You're friends with the Avatar, one of the good guys. But can you- I'm not sure about this. I want you to keep that in mind. I might just be nervous and imagining things."
Sokka smiled and tried to stand tall and proud like his father. Kori looked a few years younger than him, and she reminded him a bit of Katara like this. "I understand. I'll keep it to myself, and I'll be ready to forget it at the first sign you're wrong. We're all just doing our best to make sense of things, and none of us have all the information."
Kori offered another smile back, a weak one that quickly disappeared. "Thanks. I just- I'm worried about Sneers. His uncle is at the center of all this and- and he's angrier at Zuko than he lets on. He hates
the Fire Nation. He tries to hide it, and I thought it was because he was trying to make a life here in Yu Dao."
"Wait, I thought you're
Fire Nation. Mostly."
This time, Kori's smile was real. "My father is from the Fire Nation, and I cherish my Fire Nation heritage. But I am of my mother's blood, too." She raised a fist, and a pillar of earth rose up out of the floor between her and Sokka. She crossed her arms and leaned down on it. "Lately, I'm not sure Sneers would be with me if I couldn't Earthbend and- and prove my other heritage. And with his uncle's work missing and Zuko trying to find it... and Sneers was meeting with some of his old friends just before the lockdown, from his time as a rebel. I hope he's not involved in all this."
Sokka thought about giving her a consoling pat on the head, but decided that it wasn't a good idea. "I'll keep that in mind, but like you said, this is a stressful time. Things will probably work out."
If that sounded reassuring, it was because Sokka was doing a good job covering the suspicion that was blooming in his mind.
Mai had sunk a third knife into the woodwork above Zuko's bed when he finally arrived in his bedroom. He stopped in place with a sharp clank of his armor as soon as he saw her, and continued to just stare. Mai stared back in turn. This was the first time she had seen him up close since his banishment four years ago, the first time she really saw the scar on his face as more than a splash of color at a distance. The closest she had been to him before now had been at that ambush at the Ba Sing Se marina, when he had turned Azula's trap for him around on his sister. However, between the fight with the Dai Li, Mai's one-sided dual with Iroh, and then the arrival of the Earth King's rebels, there had been no time for a polite hello. Then Azula had fled with Zuko as her captive, while Mai had been captured by the rebels. And yet here they both were, free and working for the side that had once been their enemies. Him because he wanted to teach the Fire Nation about honor, and her because she had finally started to care about things.
If anything, his scar was a prominent reminder that he- and herself as well- had changed so much.
To cover her discomfort, Mai stood up off the bed and drawled, "Nice speech. I liked the part where you were committed 'to decreasing hostilities with the Earth Kingdom.' Let's build on that."
"Mai." Zuko closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "So you are
alive. I went with Azula to tell your family about how you had been captured by the Earth Rebels. Your mother wouldn't stop sobbing."
Mai felt like he had just shoved a sword into her stomach. Her mother cared that much? Since when? No, Mother was probably just overwhelmed by everything- losing Omashu, getting a visit from Zuko and Azula, the end of the war. "Your Uncle took care of me. He made me a deal."
Zuko nodded. "That was what I had hoped. It was part of our plan for the ambush at the marina. But when you didn't come back, even after the war ended..."
"Oh, sure, and Azula would have welcomed me back with a hug and a peck on the cheek. Things between me and your sister didn't end well. If she even suspected I had betrayed her, my mother would have really
had something to cry about."
Zuko turned his face away, showing his scar, and moved further into the room. Mai noticed that he never actually turned his back on her, though. "Azula has... calmed down. She's learning how to be a real leader, without cruelty. Losing Ba Sing Se- losing you and Ty Lee- affected her."
Mai quirked an eyebrow. Azula actually missed her? Mai had no desire to regain that friendship, but if Zuko was right about Azula, then perhaps it really would be possible to retire from Iroh's service and go back to her homeland.
But she couldn't let Zuko know that, yet. She still had a mission to complete. "Then perhaps it's better that I'm dead. My parents have Tom-Tom and can safely mourn me. And Azula is a world leader now. Keeping her sane is good." She moved slowly, casually strolling across the bedroom in a way that would put her between Zuko and the door. If he wasn't going to let down his guard, then neither was she. "Whatever's going on in Yu Dao is just the opposite of sane. Your uncle is very disappointed in you, Zuko."
His face grew harder, and he turned a scowl on her. "I don't have to explain myself to you.
I heard about everything you did in Ba Sing Se! You've lied, you've manipulated, and you've abandoned your family to go running off to play adventurer. I know why I'm doing all this, and you're probably the least trustworthy person I could share it with."
With that, Mai decided to throw off her blank exterior. After all the time they spent together as kids, all the horrible things Zuko had done, he was judging her? Letting her face twist into a scowl, she thrust a finger. "I did it for you!
I was loyal to Azula until she went after you.
That's when I started telling my own lies and going all... Azula
on everything. And I found out I was really bad at it. I nearly got Sokka killed, I couldn't save you from your stupid self, and the Avatar wound up having to save my life. I'm here giving you a chance to prove you're not becoming Sozin all over again. You're the one playing games with the whole world."
"For me?" Zuko looked back at her with half a skeptical expression. "But Sokka said you pretended to be his friend. That you betrayed him!"
Mai half laughed, half snorted. "We all betrayed each other at one point or another. It's how we relate to each other. And then Sokka and I became friends anyway. Lies are just weapons like my knives, and I choose how they're used. I could have joined the Avatar and helped conquer the Fire Nation a year ago, or killed you and Azula for the greater good or something. But I found a way to not betray my nation. We hoped you did, too, when you helped end the war, but with all this going on..." She crossed her arms and gazed at Zuko through narrowed eyes. "I don't want to have to truly fight the Fire Nation. Justify that for me."
Zuko clenched his jaw and said nothing.
Mai sighed. "Let me start, then. There was a weapon being made here. Its creator, Fa Ming, suddenly died, his assistant disappeared, and both the weapon and all its research went missing. Immediately after that, you descend on poor little Yu Dao. And before you try to deny any connections, I know
your goons reported my interference at Fa Ming's funeral last night. His work was the key to all this, and I've seen firsthand the way you're dealing with it."
"So that was
you. But they weren't exactly-" Zuko stopped suddenly.
Mai quirked an eyebrow.
"That was a trap. You tricked
me." Zuko continued to stare. Finally, he said, "Uncle knows you're here?"
Mai nodded. "He's taught me a lot."
Zuko nodded as if expecting that, and waved Mai over. "Help me out of this armor. My advisors said I had to look 'strong' for my speech, but I don't really need it."
Mai smirked. "As my Prince Regent commands."
She stepped over and began untying his chestplate. As she worked, Zuko spoke. "The weapon began with my father. He had War Minister Qin start a new research program, and as part of that Fa Ming got an open commission to explore new ideas here in Yu Dao. When Uncle and the Avatar started their invasion, communications were disrupted all over and Qin lost track of the project. Then my fa- Ozai disappeared without formally abdicating, and Azula and I had to step up and make a deal to preserve the Fire Nation. It wasn't until the Harmony Restoration Movement was already going that Fa Ming reached out to us and revealed that he had completed a prototype weapon."
Fa Ming had initiated contact? Interesting. Mai crouched down and began untying Zuko's shin guards. "And he was going to give it to you?"
Zuko nodded. Mai set down the last plate in its stand and Zuko went over to sit down heavily on the bed. "He wouldn't reveal what it was. Said it was too dangerous to put any details even in our most secure communications. He wanted to deliver the weapon to me and Azula directly, and urged us to hide it away once we got it. We were arranging the details of the transfer, but then Fa Ming was killed. His assistant sent me a hawk immediately, and I brought soldiers to lock the city down. We can't let the weapon, or knowledge of it, leave the city."
"I don't get it, why wouldn't Fa Ming just destroy the weapon if it was such a big deal?" Mai wanted to keep her hands busy by playing with a blade, but decided that now that Zuko was only wearing his robes, it might be taken the wrong way. "And how do you know the weapon hasn't already left Yu Dao? Seems you're risking a lot on a vague hope."
"I know!" Zuko threw himself to lie back on the bed and flung a fist out towards the ceiling. A plume of flame shot up to heat the air. "We had to move quickly, and every day that goes by makes it more likely that the Avatar will wipe us out or this stupid weapon will be turned against us!"
"If it makes you feel better, I've met the Avatar, and he's not really the 'wiping out' type."
"Well, then the Earth King will try in his place! But there's still a chance." Zuko steadied his breathing, and sat up again. "After we got here, we got another communication from the assistant."
Finally! More information was good, but this was a real solid lead. "What did it say?"
"I'll show you." Zuko stood up again and went straight for the bedroom door. He opened it and leaned out to bark some orders at someone, and then turned back to Mai. "It will be here soon."
"Then in the meantime..." Mai could see that Zuko had changed, but he was still fundamentally Zuko
. He couldn't keep a lid on his emotions, and he was still trying to do his best in confusing situations. At least, that was how it looked on the surface. Mai had to dig deeper. It was her job, for now. "Why don't you tell me if the ninja attack on Fa Ming's funeral had a specific mission objective, or if it was just a wild attempt to smoke out whoever has the weapon."
Zuko's scowl came back, but his eyes didn't focus on Mai. "That wasn't my idea. Azula appointed a commander to manage the search while I play politician. He thought that someone might have been trying to smuggle the weapon out of the city with the corpse, and I authorized him to investigate. Things went... further than I expected."
"It was a theory," a new, forceful voice said, "that we were unable to disprove." A big man in the uniform and armor of the Fire Army walked into the bedroom, a scroll clamped in his meaty hands. "My operatives were thwarted by very dangerous warriors, one of whom was described as a young lady who fought with knives." He looked over at Mai, and grinned widely.
His teeth were metal, and they were sharpened to points.
A shiver went up Mai's spine. She liked knives, but she also liked being able to take them off when she was done with them.
Zuko looked over at Mai and must have seen something in her face, because he turned a frown at the man. "Commander Baji, this is a private contractor who I've elected to bring into the search. She reports to me."
Baji's grin didn't waver. "The woman in the report was working with a dark-skinned young man. Coincidentally, someone matching that description was wandering around the mansion earlier tonight. I suppose he was really just a bumbling fool with no sense of direction and especially unfortunate timing?"
Mai wrenched control of her face and blanked out her expression. "No, my guess is that he was really an assassin. That's what happens when you illegally occupy a wealthy foreign city. Enemies just keep popping up. Congratulations on saving your Fire Regent from a desperate criminal, Commander. Now, I believe that scroll was for me?"
Baji handed it over, and as Mai took the paper, she thought she heard him clash his teeth together.
Zuko waved a hand. "That will be all, Commander."
"Of course, Prince Regent." With a minimal bow and one last glint of his teeth, he marched out of the room.
Mai had a feeling he was going to be trouble. She probably should have just stabbed him while she had the opportunity. Sighing at the missed chance, she unrolled the scroll and read its message:
"The weapon is still here. Its thief hunts me. I dare not show my face. I am a target, as Fa Ming was a target. His killer would see me dead, as would the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. Only a true friend to Yu Dao would protect me, and only a true friend to Yu Dao can find me. I am in the heart of the old city. Bring gold, and detailed promises about how you will protect me. Long live the forge!"
Mai read it over again, and then handed it over to Zuko. "Well, that was a delightful mix of informative and creepy. How do you know it's from the assistant?"
"It was tied to the handle of an axe that was launched at my head from several blocks away." Zuko's face twisted as though he wasn't sure if he was supposed to find it disturbing or funny. "Mayor Morishita said that the assistant had worked on a long-distance axe launcher at the high point of her career, and that it was too impractical a design to ever become popular, so it was never mass-produced. Using one was like signing the note, I guess."
"Watch for flying axes when I approach. Got it."
Zuko blinked. "You know where she is?"
"No, but I'm very resourceful these days. I'll work on it, and hopefully you'll be able to take your army and go home soon."
Mai turned to go, but Zuko called out, "Wait! Is Baji right? Is Sokka really with you?"
Mai looked back at him. "I was sent out alone, but there's no telling who I'll run into. Avatar Aang wants peace as much as Iroh."
Zuko didn't visibly react. "And... is my uncle okay?"
"He is. He fixed up his tea shop and plays Pai Sho every day." Mai let a little smile show. "I think he enjoyed trying to civilize me, but he'd rather have you back. Oh, and Jin
Zuko flushed red, and Mai was surprised that she found it more amusing than anything. Then Zuko looked down and the skin around his scar tightened. "I needed to save the Fire Nation. I still do. I need to take this weapon back home. Only I can guard it."
Mai raised her eyebrows. "Why not just destroy it? Its own creator sounded terrified of it."
He looked back up at her, and his gaze was steady. "Because someone else knows about it, now, and the Fire Nation might need the weapon. For defense. You understand."
Mai wasn't so sure, but then it was easy to be right in the abstract.
Zuko must have sensed her ambivalence. He looked up at her and said, "Mai, if Sokka is here... he was an honorable ally to me. I don't want to have him as an enemy. This is a matter just for us. For people of the Fire Nation."
"Haven't you heard? The Fire Nation thinks I'm dead." She went over to a little shrine he kept across from his bed, complete with candles. She picked one up, along with a pair of spark rocks that looked like they had never been used, and tucked it all into her sleeves. "And when it comes to honorable allies, I take personal offense if they get hurt. You don't want to see what happens when I take things personally."
Then she walked out on Zuko.
The party was starting to break up, and Mai still hadn't gotten back. Sokka hoped that she hadn't run into any trouble.
Kori had gone back to her father a while ago, so Sokka hung out at the edge the crowd and tried to avoid notice. Maybe it was because the guests were slowly leaving after Zuko's speech, but it seemed like the number of guards was increasing. Once Sokka thought to look, he realized that some of the guards were wearing different armor. There were fewer plates, and none of the pieces were painted red.
Either the guards were going to have an after-party pajama-party sleepover at Mayor Morishita's house, or special operations experts were being deployed throughout the hall.
Sokka really hoped it was the pajama party.
And then suddenly Mai was standing beside him, and Sokka practically jumped out of his fancy clothes. "Gah! Where did you come from?"
Mai turned a lazy look at him. "I have no idea. People tried to explain, but I just can't imagine my parents doing something like that. Maybe I popped out of a cabbage."
"Cute. So, Operation: Goldeneye?"
"I ran into an old friend with gold eyes, yes, and we had a talk. I got lots of juicy gossip from him."
"Good." Sokka looked around, and noticed even more of the black-armor soldiers. "I think it's about time we should be going, then."
Mai nodded. "Yeah, I see them, too. By the way, Metal Teeth Guy- who doesn't seem to be entirely agreeable with my old friend- knows who you are. I get the feeling that he's not properly leashed."
Sokka was afraid of that. Nothing good ever came of running into people who had turned parts of their bodies into weapons. Ever.
He started towards the exit, and Mai followed. Out of corner of his eyes, Sokka caught the special guards drifting in the same direction, and drawing closer together. "Run?"
Mai's hand disappeared into her sleeves, and came out holding a pair of her razor discs. "Run."
They dashed forward, weaving through the sparse crowd, and Sokka cries of surprise rose out the people. He also heard a heavy voices shout, "Get them!" He was pretty sure that didn't come from a party guest.
Several of the guards converged in front of them, and then Sokka heard the whistle of blades spinning through the air.
He ran on without slowing.
It took a while, but Longshot had yet to find the upper limits of his patience. He watched for two hours from his rooftop vantage point next door to the mansion, and only after most of the guests had already left did he finally spot Sokka and Mai's exit. They came bursting out of the mansion's front entrance at a run, and right after them came a stream of chasing guards.
Well, that wasn't what he had expected.
Longshot considered doing something to help them, if they had gotten themselves on the Fire Regent's bad side. On the other hand, he didn't want to give himself away. Only two people in the entire world knew he was in Yu Dao.
Then he spotted Mai doing something that produced a spot of light in her hand, and she threw
Then something across the street from her exploded.
Longshot's senses took several moments to recover from the sudden light and sound, but then he quickly realized what was happening.
Fireworks. Mai had set off a supply of fireworks. She had probably set them up before she went into the party as a ready distraction.
Longshot looked over at the Morishita mansion again, and while he saw the guards all rubbing their eyes and starting a search, Sokka and Mai were completely lost to his sight.
Very capable of them.
Longshot set off across the rooftops, running and jumping like he was back in the forest. The show at the mansion was apparently over, and he had to meet up with his friends.
Back at Sneers' home, sitting with the rest of their little brain trust in parlor, Mai didn't share all the details of her conversation with Zuko, or even that there had been a long, mostly peaceful conversation at all. Sneers and Kori didn't need to know that, and she could tell Sokka later.
She did reveal that she had gotten a good look at the note from Fa Ming's assistant, and what it said.
Kori smiled when she heard the words. "The 'heart of the old
Sokka stood up and clapped his hands together. "You know what that is? You sound like you know what that is. Please know what that is."
Kori leaned back in her seat. "I may be wrong, but it sounds like something I read about. Before the Fire Nation conquered this province, Yu Dao was just a glorified mining camp. My mother's people recorded a history of their ways, so that they wouldn't lose their culture. There was a reference to a 'heart' in there, but it's kind of obscure. And a little jokey."
Mai rolled her eyes. "It's always jokey. Well, it's the only thing we have to go on. What is it?"
Kori told them.TO BE CONTINUED