XI. Follow the Leader

Zuko sighed. He wondered how long they'd been following him before he noticed. The last thing he needed right then was a distraction--or five. With the trade negotiations with the Northern Water Tribe not going as well as he'd hoped (with no help from his wife), he needed to concentrate.

Their whispers were loud enough that some words came out clearly. He sighed again, glancing down at his robes and wondering if the gold trim would be ruined by what he was assuming would be a mixture of water, air, and fire. He could only be grateful that there wasn't an Earthbender among them or mud would most definitely be part of the mix.

When he was a child, he did not run through the palace corridors, screaming and laughing without a care in the world. He certainly did his share of running and screaming outside, but not for very long because that was conduct unbecoming the Crown Prince, or so his nanny said. Twenty years later, his children were running and screaming, Crown Princess included, and no one said a word. Katara tried now and again, but only half-heartedly and he had other things to do--also, he much preferred their voices to his advisors.

Zuko tucked his hands in his sleeves and slowed his steps. Despite himself--and his schedule-- he was curious about what they were up to. Then to his surprise, Maiko's face peeked around the corner at him, Jai's little face coming up around her waist.

"Psst, Daddy," she hissed. "Come here."

Brow furrowed, Zuko walked around he corner and plastered himself against the wall when Maiko waved at him irritably.

"We're here to protect you," she whispered.

"From whom?"

"The bad guys!" Jai exclaimed loudly and exuberantly.

Maiko shushed him and he reached out to grab Zuko's robes. Their youngest at 3, Jai wasn't quite up to his elder siblings' games, but he did try. Zuko almost picked him up, but decided it would be better for Jai to participate as he was sure Maiko had a role picked out for her brother.

"They want to kidnap you and take you to the Fire Nation!" Maiko explained earnestly.

"Who am I exactly?'

"The Avatar!"

Zuko frowned. "Why can't I be the Fire Lord?"

"Because he's hunting the Avatar," his daughter replied, speaking slowly as if he was an idiot. "Come on, Daddy, follow us."

Trying not to let his irritation get the better of him, Zuko followed Maiko down the corridor as Jai kept his iron grip on his father's robes. He giggled when he realized Zuko could drag him down the corridor thanks to the slippery floors, and Zuko grinned down at him, but when he glanced at Maiko, she pinned him with a look that would have made Katara proud.

"They'll hear you," she admonished, turning that look on Jai.

"Sorry," father and son said in unison.

She led them into the royal dining room, startling the maids who were getting the room prepared for dinner. When Maiko crawled under the table, the maids started to go after her, but Zuko waved them away. Gathering his robes, he followed her, Jai close at his heels.

"Do you think it's smart for us to be down here?" Zuko asked quietly. "There are chairs blocking our escape if they come in."

"This is the last place they'll look because I left a trail for Lu Zuo to follow," Maiko explained with all the wisdom of her 10 years. "We need to talk about what to do next."

"There are three of them and three of us," Zuko said.

"Jai doesn't really count as a whole person."

Zuko glanced back at his son who was long past paying attention. He grinned when he saw Zuko looking at him. Crawling forward, he settled himself underneath Zuko's chin. With his blue eyes and rounded features, he was the child who looked the less like his father but since he was old enough to recognize people, Zuko was his favorite person. The attention had been baffling at first, but Zuko soon looked forward to seeing his little shadow.

"That's not true," Zuko said, patting Jai's head. "He's just not big enough to understand yet."

"I think we should ambush them," Maiko said, golden eyes gleaming. "Since we are outnumbered, the only thing we have going for us is surprise. We have to throw a net over them and then get away."

"Alright," Zuko said. "Where should we set up this ambush?"

"The gardens," Maiko answered. "We can stand on the roof and get them!"

"I don't think your mom will like that."

Maiko pouted but he could also see the gears turning in her head.

"What if we hide behind the pillars in the throne room and surprise them there?" she suggested.

"How do you suggest we get them there?"

She grinned at him.

_____________

Zuko sat cross-legged on the dias. He rested his chin in his cupped hand, but quickly straightened when Maiko frowned at him. She and Jai were standing behind the two lone pillars in the room. Jai was actually not doing anything important; Zuko gave him a piece of string tied to the pillar to hold on to so he felt like he was doing something. Maiko was holding on to the actual, useful piece of string attached to the net hanging above his head. Zuko made a mental note to thank Sokka for teaching him how to rig the simple trap.

The throne room doors open. From behind his wall of flames, Zuko saw 3 little bodies enter the room trying their best to be sneaky. They were all wearing fairly accurate imitations of a Water Tribe warrior's outfit, thanks to Sokka no doubt. When Lu Zuo spotted Zuko on the dias, his eyes widened.

"Dad, get out of there!"

Zuko frowned. He glanced at Maiko who was grinning in a way that made him uncomfortable and as he watched, she tugged on the string, bringing the net down on him.

"We win! We win!" she chanted, swooping up Jai as he laughed and echoed her.

Zuko blinked. Lu Zuo, Kya, and Iroh walked up the dias and helped him out from under the net. He looked down at them.

"We were supposed to escort you to safety," Iroh said, pouting. "She got you first."

"Uh..." Zuko mumbled, glancing from them to Maiko. "I guess she did."

Catching his eye, Maiko grinned. "Gotcha, Dad!"

He let out a disbelieving laugh. "Yeah, I guess you did, but this'll be the first and last time, Maiko."

She laughed. "We'll see!"

~fin~