Adagio for the Revolution
This time their stalemate played out in a tasteful little teashop near the outskirts of the Outer Ring. Mai watched the evening frost gather on Zuko's tripwires and wondered just how much living in the shadow of the great walls had taught him about defenses.
She balanced her teacup carefully between her palms so that the heat would leech into her arthritic wrists. Mai knew to hoard warmth when she found it. Theirs was a long, cold war.
Mai took an experimental sip of her tea and grimaced.
"It's a shame," Mai said, while Zuko finished securing the room, "that trees keep having to die so that you can make tea this dreadful."
Zuko grunted and locked the door. His staff had scattered like leaves on the wind when the guard sounded out the last half-hour till curfew. Their clientele had fled long before that. People in Ba Sing Se respected walls – the barrier between day and night, especially.
Thus Mai was left at the mercy of her former Prince's questionable brewing skills.
"My uncle taught me a lot about tea."
"Is that so?"
"You put leaves in hot water. There isn't much to know."
Mai refrained from commenting further, in favor of holding her tea in exactly as much contempt at it deserved.
Zuko raised his own cup to his lips. Their small talk died a quiet, un-mourned death. Mai noted that the grey at his temples had grown more pronounced over the last year since she'd seen him. Worry had engraved itself into the lines of his face. The boy he'd once been had eroded into something else entirely.
Even so, it still bothered her to see Zuko without the scar of his Agni Kai. Mai thought it unfair of him to blur the lines between his past and her present so carelessly.
Zuko cleared his throat.
"It will rain tonight."
"Yes. Freezing rain," Mai said. "You're icing the walls. I see that Chancellor Sokka is keeping your Waterbenders busy."
"You know about that." Zuko frowned, but Mai was pleased to see that he was unsurprised.
"We do." Mai took another chance on her tea in lieu of anything else to do. Still horrid. It was a shame that Zuko was unwilling to meet in the inner areas of the city, where they might have acquired some better refreshments. The entire outer ring was full of dirty people and Mai cursed him three times over for refusing to hold this year's meeting in New Ozai, where the air was clear and the streets sang with the sounds of her brother's great ironworks. "Of course, you wouldn't ice the walls if you didn't know about our new siege engines."
"That's true as well."
"Nothing will come of the project," Mai sighed and choked down another mouthful of liquid. She could, given time, get used to almost anything - bad tea included. "Our forces are at their limit keeping the rest of the continent under occupation. It's the same as it ever was."
Boring, that is. As dull as the dusty streets of Ba Sing Se, or the Fire Capital's ash-grey sky. Fire Lord Azula's left-hand woman and the Earth King's director of covert operations moved in point and counterpoint, upholding the deadlock between their two masters and accomplishing absolutely nothing.
Their annual parlay was born of necessity – one year Zuko wished to minimize innocent Fire Nation casualties on the borderlands, the next Mai had to move against a human trafficking ring that operated on both sides of the Outer Wall. Over time it developed into a habit. Almost a ritual. Zuko was too honorable to turn on her and Mai, well, Mai made sure to always come heavily armed.
The meetings were… interesting. A bright speck of difference in the interminably tedious job of silencing mouthy dissidents and protecting technological secrets. Mai did not know what they meant to Zuko, nor did she care to.
"I disagree." Zuko set his teacup down, deliberately. "Really." Mai's voice dripped condescension. "You know more now about what's going on with Fire Nation Research and Development than I do. That's fabulous. I'll join the circus and leave you to both our jobs, then."
She gulped down more tea in an attempt to shock herself into wakefulness. For some reason she was beginning to feel drowsy. Mai was getting too old for late nights spent trying to carry out Azula's orders in anticipation of her actually giving them.
"I wasn't talking about the siege engines." Zuko shook his head. "What I meant was, things are going to change."
Mai almost dropped her teacup. Her hands were clumsy – heavy, even. She felt for the familiar weight of her knives.
"What is this?" Mai pulled one of her blades from its holster but her fingers were too thick, too wide, too scattered, and she ended up driving it into the table.
"I told you." Zuko stood and circled back behind her, catching her shoulders when she lost the ability to remain upright on the bench. "My uncle taught me a lot about tea."
Mai's breath caught.
She'd come armed. She'd been prepared. Her exit strategy was already in place. Zuko shouldn't want her dead and replaced by a bloodthirsty young pup with too much to prove. This wasn't in the script for them.
"We've been at this too long. I'm stopping it. You should choose the life you want, not what Azula tells you to do." Zuko sounded indulgent. Fond, even. The corners of his lips twisted upwards, tugging his frown lines into unfamiliar patterns. Mai could not understand what he was thinking.
Her head felt fuzzy, but her heart threatened to beat its way right out of her chest.
"The new Avatar is with us. This war must end." Zuko laid her gently down on the bench. "Sokka, Bei Fong, all ones still alive to remember Aang – we're going to start the next war for her."
The drug was everywhere, pushing Mai under, drowning her thoughts. Her vision blurred. Zuko's features smoothed into a face she'd almost forgotten.
It should have been easy to finally surrender to the ennui and let his poison take her. Zuko owed her the dignity of a swift death. Yet Mai realized, to her own surprise, that she did not want to perish here.
"So you decided to begin by killing me," she sneered.
"No," Zuko contradicted her. "You'll wake up from this. Then we'll talk about your future."
Mai's heart drummed faster. The sedative spread further through her bloodstream. She didn't have much longer left to fight.
She tried to speak, but only ended up making a mewling noise in the back of her throat.
"I don't remember a lot about home, anymore. But I remember you."
- - -
Author's Note: I wrote this before the S2 finale, but had to leave off posting it for a while due to extraneous circumstances. The timeline surrounding this fic is intact in my head and I'm thinking of writing more stories in this universe. Let me know what you think!