Ba Sing Se, one month after the war's end
Zuko was adamant that no fuss was necessary. Mai was even more adamant. So Iroh, proprietor of the Jasmine Dragon, proud uncle of the new Fire Lord and thrilled uncle of his newly engaged nephew, simply closed the tea shop for business and cooked up a storm. They, along with friends, the other members of Ba Sing Se's resistance, would spend time catching up while enjoying some wonderful food and even more wonderful tea. That was all right with Iroh. There really was no better way to spend time anyway. Throw in a few games of pai sho and he would be in his glory.
The bell over the tea shop door rang and Yao stepped inside with his wife, Atka and daughter, Kirima. "Iroh, you there?" he called cheerfully.
Wiping his hands off on his apron, the tea maker stepped outside of the kitchen and grinned. "Hello, friend and hello to you too ladies; how is everyone today?"
"We're fine," Yao replied. The earthbender clapped his friend heartily on the back. "Smells great; can we help?"
Iroh thought for a moment. "Well, you could move some tables together before I put the place settings down. Everyone else is busy in the kitchen with me or out in the garden cutting flowers for the tables. Kirima, perhaps you'd like to keep an eye on the oven?"
"Yes, sir," she grinned, knowing full well that Jet was in the kitchen helping out.
"Do you want these tables in the centre, Iroh?" Atka asked.
"That would be perfect; I'll bring you out a cup of tea. Just give me a few minutes." He hurried back into the kitchen and came out with freshly brewed tea not long after.
"Ah, thank you, Iroh. It's perfect, as always." Atka took another sip and hummed contentedly. "So how excited are you about your nephew's visit?" She knew the answer already, but enjoyed seeing the old man beam with joy and anticipation. After several dark weeks, weeks filled with violence and terror and death, any happiness, any bit of pleasure was welcomed.
Yes, Ba Sing Se was free, the Fire Nation occupiers defeated and gone, but people didn't simply forget all that they had seen and endured. The wounds would close up eventually but there would be scars, residual pain and all those terrible memories. The healer sighed and reached for one of Iroh's moon cakes. Nibbling thoughtfully, she tried to imagine a world with no more war and no more conflict. The optimistic part of the woman decided that maybe it was a possibility, but the cynic in her wondered when some new trouble would begin.
"All right?" her husband inquired softly, brushing a bit of hair back from her face.
"Mmm, yes, I'm fine, just thinking."
Yao smiled gently and brushed his lips against her temple. "Well, there's lots to think about, isn't there?"
"Indeed, lots to think about. We were lucky, weren't we, Yao? I'm so grateful."
Their daughter, Kirima, was safe, and her Jet, the young man she loved so much and who fought so bravely for the resistance had come out unscathed. Their son, too, a student at Ba Sing Se University, had not been hurt. Yes, they were lucky, much more so than many of the city's citizens.
"As am I. my dear, as am I; and today is a day for celebrating. Let's enjoy it." He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "How about we finish moving those tables?"
Fire Nation Palace, one week earlier
He was the Fire Lord now and there was simply no getting around being noticed, especially when visiting another city in another nation. Zuko's personal assistant, Kenji*, a man in his thirties, and already, after less than a month, a close friend of Zuko's, insisted on him travelling with a full contingent of guards.
"But Mai and I, we can take care of…."
Kenji slammed his hand down forcefully on the young monarch's desk and growled. Off to the side, sitting on a comfortable sofa, Mai smothered her laugh. Her fiancé's face looked ridiculous; red and contorted and angry, but resigned as well.
"Fine, fine, a few guards," he relented. "I just didn't want to make a big scene, going back to Ba Sing Se. We lived there for awhile, got to know a lot of people. It was home, sort of." The last thing Zuko wanted was to come across as a show off, or spoiled royalty. He much preferred slipping into the huge city, getting to the Jasmine Dragon without anyone knowing and then leaving again. The visit was personal, after all, not political.
"I understand that, Zuko, but your safety is my number one priority and I'm sure that it is Mai's as well." Cheekily, Kenji glanced at Mai, giving the sixteen year old a wink.
"Oh no, you're not dragging me into your little power struggle." Mai rolled her eyes and leaned back further into the cushions. "Not you either, Zuko," she stated firmly, meeting her lover's pleading gaze with her own stern one.
Kenji spoke up again, seriously and passionately. "Not a few guards, enough guards to do the job; safety will not be compromised. Your reign is young, untested. The world is still adjusting to this new peace. Not everyone is happy with you as Fire Lord. I firmly believe that assassination attempts will happen. We cannot let down our defenses."
"All right, I see your point, but I don't have to like it." Zuko tapped his fingers on the shiny wood surface of his desk, already cluttered with work. It was overwhelming and at times the young man felt as though he might drown in a sea of scrolls. "Anybody else feel like some tea?"
Mai sighed and got up from her cozy little spot. "I'll see to it. I've a few other things to attend to anyway. Any particular kind, my lord?" The honorific was spoken teasingly. She never formally addressed Zuko as such. He would have none of that and neither would she. They were partners in this business of running the palace and running the nation. Others might not see things that way, and without a doubt, others would not agree with such an arrangement, but neither of them cared.
Zuko replied, his eyes sparkling with their own humor and mischief. "I'll leave that huge decision up to you, Mai. I think you can handle it."
"Oh, I can handle a lot of things…."
"For mercy's sake," Kenji exclaimed, "Does everything with you two have to have erotic overtones? Just get the damned tea!"
Chortling, Mai stepped out into the hallway. She headed to the kitchen. "Green, I think," she mused to herself, "and something to eat too. I'm hungry."
Ba Sing Se
"At this rate, we'll never make it to the Jasmine Dragon," Zuko whined. He stared out the carriage window at the crowds that lined the street, waving and grinning happily. Some tried to approach the carriage and guards needed to gently hold them back. People chanted his name over and over again. It was all a bit staggering and a much better reception than he received in his own capitol city.
"Don't gripe," Kenji advised. He sat across from Mai and Zuko, ever alert, watching the guards who accompanied the slow moving carriage, and the people of the city. "They're thrilled to see you."
"Yeah, don't gripe, Zuko." Mai clearly enjoyed witnessing Zuko's chastisement at his advisor's hand.
The young Fire Lord's gaze moved back and forth from Kenji to Mai and back to Kenji again. "Should I wave back or something?" He was clearly bewildered.
"Do what feels right," the older man advised.
Kenji was almost like a younger version of Iroh; wise, kind but extremely tough when toughness was required. He gave no easy answers but rather tried to guide Zuko, get the youthful Fire Lord to really think. Perhaps that was what had attracted both Mai and Zuko to the man. As soon as they had spoken with Kenji, neither had harbored any doubt as to his honour, loyalty and honesty. And they both liked him instantly as well. Though it had only been a few weeks, the man had already proven himself valuable and only grown in their esteem.
Zuko poked his head out of the carriage and gave the crowds a wave, his face turning charmingly pink. Adulation was a new thing and made him uncomfortable, though he appreciated the warmth of his greeting. He moved to the other side of the carriage, climbing over Mai, and waved at those on the opposite side of the street.
"You're on my foot," Mai stated sharply and gave him a slight push.
Kenji laughed while Zuko moved immediately. "S, sorry," he stuttered.
"Just stay on the one side," Mai advised. "I prefer not to be crippled."
Obediently, the Fire Lord stuck to his side of the carriage, giving the occasional wave and thanking people for their welcome. "Guess they like me," he declared modestly.
"And so they should," his fiancée declared immediately. "You fought your own for them; that's a big deal, Zuko."
He shrugged. "I guess." Tired already of the attention, he burrowed into the cushioned seat and allowed his eyes to slip shut for a few moments. He was aware of Mai gently taking his hand in hers, stroking the fingers almost seductively. It was too much and he actually fell asleep.
"He'll probably never get enough of that again," Kenji warned sagely.
Mai gave Zuko a tender glance. "I know. That's why I won't disturb him."
He was jerked awake minutes later when Mai shook his shoulder. "We're here," she announced. Excited herself, she peered out the window and smiled at the sight of the Jasmine Dragon. Everyone would be inside; Ty Lee and Jin and Iroh and the others she had developed respect and affection for over the weeks of their residency in Ba Sing Se. Mai was all too aware that like sleep, seeing friends who did not live just around the corner, so to speak, would be rare. She needed to make the most of their few days in the once walled city.
Iroh was already outside the tea shop, eager for the visit to finally get underway. He looked ecstatic and gestured for the guards to come on up and station themselves around his establishment. People hovered about waiting for Mai and Zuko to step outside the carriage and mount the steps.
Once the driver opened the door for them, they nimbly exited the carriage and sprinted up the stairs, both young people falling into Iroh's tight, loving embrace. The crowd let out its breath in a collective sigh that sounded suspiciously like a heartfelt 'awww'.
"It's so good to see you both," the tea maker stated fiercely once he let go. Tears streamed down his cheeks and into his grey beard, collecting there in the wiry hair. "I've missed you and I am bursting with pride. You did so well, both of you. Come on now, let's go inside. There's quite a welcoming party awaiting your presence."
Zuko and Mai blinked back the dampness in their own eyes and, with guards and Kenji following close behind, entered the Jasmine Dragon. Everything was a loud flurry after that. Ty Lee pounced on Mai, wrapping herself around the black haired girl, talking giddily about all that had happened and all that she wanted to know. Mai let her friend go on without interruption. It was easier that way. When Ty Lee was spent, and finally released her hold, Mai pulled her into a less intense hug and rolled her eyes.
"You haven't changed that much." Her tone was dry, typical Mai and the acrobat giggled. "And I'm happy to see you too."
"When is the wedding? That would be a perfect time for me to bring Jin to the Fire Nation. I promised that I would show her my country one day." Ty Lee beckoned the other young woman over.
"Uh, well, soon, but we don't have a date. And you, you and Jin are always welcome. I mean that. Just don't expect Zuko to give you much time. The job is already killing him." Mai couldn't help but imagine the reaction of the council to Ty Lee and Jin. Most indubitably they would disapprove. That made Mai unreasonably pleased. She exchanged a few words with Jin before moving off. "Come on and say hello to Zuko," the soon to be Fire Lady suggested.
He was busy talking with Jet and Smellerbee, Longshot standing off to the side, silent but ever watchful. Bee translated the archer's unusual language of subtle facial expressions for everyone. He spoke once in awhile now, but still preferred his more subdued type of communication. Perhaps that would change with time, perhaps not. Smellerbee's ability to read him was uncanny, though. She didn't see only basic things in his eyes and in his face, but complex ideas and emotions too. Truly, it was remarkable, a testament to their years together as well as the powerful bond that they shared.
Once everyone had spoken with everyone else, and the initial excitement had calmed down a bit, Iroh called for quiet. Well trained, the people settled down right away.
"The food and drink will be here shortly." The people roared their approval. "But first I want to welcome my nephew and his lovely fiancé back to Ba Sing Se and back to the Jasmine Dragon." Clapping and cheering followed. Zuko looked awkwardly embarrassed and pleased, shuffling his feet and staring down at the spotlessly clean floor. Mai kept her expression completely neutral. A tiny hint of pink in her cheeks, though, noticeable only to Zuko when he finally looked up again, gave her own feelings of shyness and pleasure away. "You are the Fire Lord now, Zuko, something I was confident would happen one day. I know that the road ahead of you and Mai, your partner in all things, will be a rocky one. This world is damaged and there is so much hurt out there. But I am confident that you will make me even more proud and bring dignity and grace back to the Fire Nation." Iroh let his bright amber eyes travel about the dining room then, looking carefully at each and every person there. "We all are happy to see you again, and we all wish you well. I want you to know, Mai and Zuko, that this tea shop, my Jasmine Dragon, will always be here for you, a second home, a refuge, a place where you can simply be Mai and Zuko, not the Fire Lord and his lady." Zuko moved ahead to hug his beloved uncle once more, Mai hanging back. "Now," the tea maker declared, "let's eat."
The meal was incredible and everyone ate and drank more than they should have. But it was a day for excesses and not one of them felt guilty. When Iroh pushed his chair back from the table and groaned while rubbing his still considerable belly, everyone laughed and decided to stop along with him.
"What's amazing," Iroh quipped, "is that I'll be hungry for breakfast tomorrow morning."
"You're not the only one," Jet laughed. He gave Kirima a wink and the young woman blushed.
Zuko reached for Mai's hand underneath the table. "It was wonderful, all of it, Uncle. Thank you and thanks to everyone else for helping."
"Not a problem, no big deal, it was nothing," came from various spots around the room.
Mai gave her lover a nudge and then indicated the door. "Oh," Zuko began, "would you mind if Mai and I took a little walk around the city." He gave Kenji a piercing look. "Alone."
"I know the desire to protect," Iroh said stepping in, wanting to stop any conflict, "but both Mai and Zuko are skilled warriors, capable of looking after themselves. It's dark, the streets are quiet. I'm sure they'll be fine. And they need a little bit of freedom too, Kenji."
"Fine, fine," the man relented. "I get it; but that doesn't mean that I have to like it." He had deliberately echoed the Fire Lord's words of a week earlier. "You had best take good care. I don't want to explain to your council about how you were killed in Ba Sing Se."
"Your concern is heartwarming," Mai drawled. "I knew there was a reason we chose you above all the other candidates."
Kenji played along. "My concern is famous in the Fire Nation. Are you certain that you hadn't heard of me before?"
"Just go already," Jet urged. "We'll be sure to leave some of the clean up for you."
Zuko might be Fire Lord, but when in the Jasmine Dragon with family and friends, all titles and privileges ended.
"Oh, thanks. We'll be sure to hurry back." Mai tugged on her fiancé's hand, dragging him toward the door.
"See you in awhile," Zuko called. "And thanks again."
"Great as that was. I'm glad to be alone with you." Mai walked as close to Zuko as possible, making certain that their bodies bumped gently against each other.
The early autumn night was cool and Mai reveled in the warmth that Zuko's body radiated. There were definite and enticing advantages to being with a firebender.
"I'm glad too," Zuko grinned and snuck a kiss.
They wandered about the still recovering city, eventually ending up in the Lower Ring. It had been devastated. Burnt out husks of buildings were everywhere, but so were those in the process of being constructed. The people of Ba Sing Se were rebuilding, trying to make their city a better one than it had been before.
More important than all that, the streets were free of Fire Nation patrols and Bringers and the Dai Li. The city had the beginnings of its own police force now, a force that came from all walks of life and answered to the people.
"There's our old apartment," Zuko whispered as if afraid he might waken someone.
The streets were mostly deserted, not because of any curfew but because work began early the next day and there was much more to be done than usual. The couple sat on the edge of the well, the cold of the stone seeping through their clothes and chilling Mai especially. Zuko put an arm around his fiancée and then placed a soft kiss on her cheek.
"Remember?" he asked.
"Hard to forget," she replied with a smirk.
It was a beautiful night, the sky clear and bright with stars, the moon almost full, huge and yellow. Both were content to just sit. A voice called out to them, interrupting their silent reverie.
"Everything all right?" It was a police officer, middle aged and kind looking.
"We're fine," Mai answered. "Just out for a walk."
"Romantic kind of evening," the man stated, voice laced with innuendo. "Make the most of it." He continued on his way, humming a tune. He had no idea, naturally, that he had spoken to the new Fire Lord and his fiancée.
"I believe he just gave us an order," Zuko joked. "We wouldn't want to disobey the police, now would we?"
"Oh, no, that would be shameful." Mai snuggled in close to Zuko's chest and he peppered the top of her head with kisses.
"Shall we keep walking; maybe go see the Firelight Fountain?" He was willing to do whatever Mai wanted as long as he was in her company. That was all that mattered.
"Mmm, yeah, okay."
So they continued their tour, stopping at restaurants they had eaten in, the weapons shop they had raided and spent the night in (Mai left some money behind as recompense) and ending up at the fountain. It wasn't lit and was partially damaged. Both their faces fell.
"Too bad," the young man stated mournfully. "Hope they fix it." He lit the few lanterns that were still upright and they enjoyed the soft yellowish glow for awhile before moving on.
"There's a lot of work to be done." Mai's words were flat. 'The Fire Nation…"
"Yeah," Zuko interrupted. "We need to help all that we can. My family," he gestured widely, "is responsible for all this. I'm the one who has to make things right again."
"You will, Zuko, we will." She rested her head on his shoulder and they walked like that, wending their way along streets and alleys, back to the Upper Ring and the Jasmine Dragon.
The tea shop was brightly lit and the chatter of their friends spilled out onto the street. Guards stood motionless around its perimeter, watching the night for anything untoward.
"Everyone's still here by the sounds of it," Zuko observed. "I'm glad."
They mounted the steps again and pulled the door open. Laughter greeted the couple, and warmth and the residual smells of good food.
"Hey, they're back," Ty Lee cried excitedly. "Come on, we're having a pai sho tournament. Wanna play?"
Zuko and Mai exchanged a brief glance and then they both faced the shining visage of their oldest friend.
"Sure," the Fire Lord agreed with a shrug. "That sounds like fun."
"Who would have thought?" Mai muttered to herself.
Stepping further into the room, hands linked, the couple was enveloped by the warmth and the light of the Jasmine Dragon, and the love of their good friends and family.
"Sit," the old tea maker said, indicating a table and two chairs with a good view of the ongoing game. "We saved a spot for you."
*YES, Kenji again...I like Kenji and I love this little bit of continuity between different stories