Whoa! I'm alive! And so is this story! It never died; I've been working on it off and on since I posted the last chapter, so very long ago. However, I've spent the last year writing my dissertation and applying for jobs, which means that I've written many, many pages of material over the past months – all of it non-fiction. The fanfiction only gets done when I simply can't work on my dissertation anymore, and when I actually have the brainpower to spare. Which isn't often. I am so tired.
I dream of a day when I can devote more time to fiction. Perhaps that day will come. Until then, many thanks to anyone who's still interested enough to follow this story. I was especially grateful for the feedback after the last chapter. I engaged in some stylistic experimentation, and had the feeling that it wasn't entirely successful. Your reviews confirmed my initial impression. Lesson learned!
After the huge wait, I wish I had a more action-packed chapter for you. Alas, this is one final bit of necessary scene-setting. The s**t doesn't really hit the fan until the next chapter…
Chapter 5 – A Day in the Life
The lines seemed to wiggle and blur on the page. Zuko snapped the scroll shut. It wouldn't do to let the man know that his Firelord was barely literate.
He covered by pretending that he understood what he was looking at. He thought he had a pretty good guess, given the way his life had been going lately.
"So we're in trouble."
"Yes, My Lord."
Like everything else, reading and math had come hard to Zuko. As a small child, he had struggled and fought, long and hard, to impose order on the unruly masses of squiggles, and wrestle some sort of meaning out of them.
Now the Procurator of the Imperial Fiscus was waving scroll after scroll in the Firelord's face, as if that would make everything clear. Columns marched in neat rows across the pages, a deceptively tidy way to portray something of dizzying complexity. For Zuko, the vast machinery of the royal fortune defied comprehension.
The fiscus, unlike the state treasury, was under the absolute control of the Firelord. It was funded by some public revenue, but most of it came from his family's own estate. It was tied up in dozens of private ventures, but also helped to cover state expenses. If it received through a hundred tributaries, it was also siphoned off in a thousand directions. Until he became Firelord, Zuko had never questioned, or even thought about, the flow of riches that kept him living in the lap of luxury every day. But in these troubled times, it seemed that even the fabulous river of imperial wealth was running dry.
Azula would have understood. The thought rose unbidden. Everybody else noticed the fire, but to Zuko, that had always seemed the least of Azula's talents. Her intellectual achievements awed him more, because he understood them less. She didn't have a hard time reading or doing sums. Her tutors raved about her brilliance and swooned at her subtlety. The right words rolled off her tongue at the right moments, in a smooth swell of easy fluency. Problems fell away before her, as she cut through them with razor-sharp logic.
Zuko tried and tried to force the world into a shape that his mind could cope with. Azula never forced anything. She wrapped her mind around the shape of the world, as quickly and easily as others breathed.
She would have understood, and seen a way through this mess.
As if on cue, the Procurator said, "The Princess sometimes found it helpful-"
"Yes, yes." Zuko rose quickly. "I have to be somewhere else right now. We'll talk about this later." Irritated, he flung the scroll back onto the pile. It continued sliding and fell off the edge of the table onto the floor, taking several others scrolls with it. Zuko turned on his heel and left, not stopping to watch as the Procurator scrambled to pick them up.
He started walking to the practice courts, the rising anger making his footfalls quick and sharp. Before he had gone five steps, his attendants caught up and surrounded him. Some of them darted in front, forcing Zuko to check his stride. Now, instead of simply making his way briskly to the practice courts, he was being herded there at a snail's pace.
They probably would have called it a stately procession, or dignified progress. Apparently, the whole damned flock of clucking goose-hens were "necessary to his dignity". The Firelord had had an argument with his own steward about this, and lost. Tadao said that the Firelord must maintain an imposing presence at all times, and a retinue helped . Besides, it was traditional. Firelord Ozai had never objected, nor Azulon before him.
Zuko wondered how dignified and imposing it would be if steam started coming out of his ears.
Tadao also claimed that playing with swords was beneath the Firelord's dignity, but Zuko actually managed to win that debate. He stopped in a small chamber just outside the training grounds. He held out his arms and stifled a sigh, as his swarm of servants rushed to change him into clothing which he hadn't picked out. Zuko didn't even get to dress himself anymore.
When he stepped outside, he stood for a moment with his eyes closed, face turned to the sun, willing Agni's light to soothe his spirit.
It didn't work. All it did was make his chi swell with rising fire and his hands itch for a fight. When he reached into the weapons cabinet for his blades, he threw the door open, then slammed it shut again.
"Right. Let's start."
His sword master had finally, with a wistful smile, admitted that perhaps Zuko needed a younger man for his sparring partner. While the old master stood to the side and offered advice, Zuko fought with one of the palace guards.
It went well, at first. He settled smoothly into the familiar rhythm, his movements mostly routine as he and his opponent felt each other out.
Gradually the tempo changed, became more varied. Each having taken the other man's measure, they both fought in earnest now. For a while it seemed that they might be evenly matched. Zuko was the quicker, but his opponent was stronger and heavier. The weight of his blows sent vibrations through Zuko's arms – when he could land them.
Eventually, however, it became clear that Zuko was the more brilliant swordsman. The guard was beyond competent, but he reacted more than he created. Zuko, on the other hand, made his own opportunities. His every movement set up the next one, so that each flowed seamlessly into the other. His outclassed opponent was constantly compelled to defend, never allowed to attack. An ignorant bystander might have thought that Zuko's speed and reflexes were simply phenomenal. In truth, his advantage lay in skill, not in any physical superiority. If he seemed to counter his opponent effortlessly, it was only because he was dictating the course of the fight.
Zuko would say this for him, the man guarded himself well. His conservative approach didn't gain him any ground, but it kept Zuko from ending the matter. Perhaps Zuko could have slipped past that solid wall of defense, if he had really thought about it. But, for the moment, he was savoring the sheer joy of the fight, reveling in the movement itself, in the speed and clashing of strength.
He pushed faster and harder. Some might have said-
"Reckless!" called his master, from the side.
Soon the tide began to turn. Zuko hadn't finished when he held the advantage; now he was paying the price for his aggression. He was getting tired, too tired for the furious pace he himself had set. The guard came on stronger, clearly having saved his strength while Zuko was wearing himself down.
But Zuko kept on battling, refusing to slow down or withdraw into a defensive holding pattern. His movements become jerky and wild as he struggled for control over fatigued limbs. A discordant note entered the dance.
Finally the inevitable happened, his opponent's sword slipping through to slap at his wrist.
"You dropped your shoulder!" barked the master.
Zuko gritted his teeth. As if he didn't know!
The fight had been mostly silent to this point, punctuated by the occasional grunt. Now he growled and swore under his breath. Despite his exhaustion, and ignoring his master's advice, he bore down harder. The ever-present anger fueled his onslaught. He would take control!
The hard reality of battle betrayed him, though. Predictably, if he had been thinking straight, the other man stepped inside his guard. The blunted sword raked along Zuko's right arm, flung his hand out wide, and tore his own sword from his grip.
If his opponent was inside Zuko's guard, so too was Zuko really close to him, for the first time in the fight. Almost before the soldier had completed his motion, Zuko had stamped down hard on the man's foot and snapped his torso forward, driving his left shoulder into the guard's chest.
This wouldn't have bought him much time, except for the foot planted firmly on the guard's own. When the man twisted back away from the blow, his leg didn't go with him. He cried out, and Zuko knew that his knee had just given under the pressure.
Zuko lifted his foot. The soldier staggered on one leg, thrown off balance by the failure of the other leg to support him. His stunned face made an easy target. Since Zuko couldn't skewer the bastard, he reversed his blade and used the pommel.
The guard fell gracelessly onto his rump, holding his broken nose. Blood streamed down around his fingers. For a moment, Zuko stood over him, enjoying a surge of ugly elation at the sight of his fallen enemy.
Then reality came crashing back, and remorse with it. Agni. He could have killed the man. Spirits grant that bone hadn't been pushed back into his brain.
His victim obviously wasn't getting up any time soon, so Zuko crouched down in front of him. "Are you all right?"
The guard – Zuko realized with a pang that he had never asked for his name – looked at him. The bloodied face was completely (carefully?) unreadable.
Zuko felt, more than heard, the heavy, disapproving silence that fell around him. He glanced up, shame twisting through his gut. It was a familiar sensation.
They all wore the same expression as the guard: the blank, wooden expression that inferiors showed to the Firelord when they didn't dare to reveal their true feelings. Over the centuries of imperial rule, men had been killed for less than an honest opinion.
Zuko was getting used to that, too. He glanced at his sword master, who was also hiding his thoughts. But Zuko knew what he was thinking. If Zuko were anyone else, the old master would refuse to train him anymore.
His stunt might have saved his life in a real fight, but it was unpardonable in a sparring match. The broken nose seemed all right, but the soldier's knee might well be ruined for life.
At least the man could leave the field with some dignity. Silently, Zuko extended his hand. The soldier took it after only a second or two of hesitation, and Zuko hauled him to his feet. Two other guards rushed to either side to support their wounded comrade.
"What is your name, soldier?"
Zuko stared him straight in the eye. "I'm sorry, Jin. What I did was inexcusable. I'm going to have you treated by my own doctors. If the knee is beyond saving, you'll receive an honorable discharge, and full pay for the rest of your life. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Jin's jaw clenched, and he looked away. When he turned back, a gleam of defiance shone in those shuttered eyes. "I want my leg back."
The hush was absolute. Zuko sensed that everyone had stopped breathing. He drew in his own breath sharply. "I understand."
And he did understand. He strode blindly away from the training grounds, not stopping to change. He was only vaguely aware of his retinue arranging itself around him.
A bad leg! The soldier was proud – had to be, or he wouldn't have risen to the elite post of palace guard. Could a life of leisure and free pay, no matter how high, really compensate for what Zuko had stolen? If the knee was wrecked, then Zuko had taken not just his livelihood, but his pride. What man, with any sense of his own worth and dignity, wanted to live as an invalid and a charity case?
And Jin was good with a sword. Damned good! He had the gift. How would Zuko have felt if he couldn't fight anymore?
A door suddenly appeared in front of him. Zuko stopped, his nose barely six inches from the surprising slab of wood. He blinked, realized that his handlers had herded him to his usual lunch rendezvous with Mai. His shoulders relaxed, just a bit. Mai would know what to do. He had to talk to Mai…
But when he walked through the door, the words died on his lips. She looked bored. That was normal, but those who knew her well knew that there were different kinds of bored. Today was the I've-been-waiting-for-you-and-I'm-not-pleased bored. With an uneasy feeling, Zuko realized that she looked uncannily like her grandfather, Hiro.
There was a stack of scrolls at her elbow. One was lying open. She extended a long, pale finger and pointed to a spot on the paper. Some people might have tapped it a few times. Not Mai. The finger stabbed once with finality and stayed there, motionless – like the accusing finger of justice. Even though she wasn't looking at the scroll, Zuko had no doubt that she had unerringly pinpointed the precise spot she intended.
"You've given several tons of gold, silver, and copper to the New Allied Duchies of the Earth Kingdom." It wasn't a question.
"Yes." He could hear the note of defensiveness in his own voice, and hated it. He felt his hackles rise.
"As a gift, to show our goodwill. I offered our services to help them rebuild, but they said they'd rather have the cash."
"I'm sure they did." Ty Lee would have said that Mai's aura had turned black.
"We're in the process of drawing up trade agreements. I'm sure we'll more than make up the loss through tariffs."
"Zuko, when the government collects precious metal, it's called bullion. Do you know what we do with bullion?"
He did know, of course, but he was starting to feel stubborn. The muscles in his jaw tightened painfully. "We stockpile it."
"And eventually we melt it down to mint coins. Do you know what we do with those coins?"
"Put them into circulation."
"In a roundabout way. We use them to pay the military."
"So? This is peacetime; we need to take steps to keep the peace. And we're in the process of scaling back the military."
"You're keeping the peace by docking your soldiers' pay? Unpaid soldiers get angry, Zuko. Peace and angry soldiers don't exactly mix."
"Peace and angry Earth Nationals don't exactly mix either."
"True." Mai paused, as if a thought had just occurred to her. "At least their soldiers will be well-paid."
He spoke through stiff lips. "They assured me that that money would be used for rebuilding and relief for the poor."
"That's what they said, anyway. You lived with Ozai and Azula for years. Why hasn't it sunk in that there's a difference between what people say and their true intentions?"
He laughed, a short, harsh bark of a laugh with no real humor in it. "No, I'm not cynical and selfish and deceitful, like them. And I don't want to be." Zuko decided to hit where he knew it would hurt. "If you weren't so cold and calculating yourself, you would understand."
The temperature in the room seemed to drop. "At least one of us has to do some cold, hard calculation. And you're right, Azula wouldn't have given them that bullion."
"If she's so smart, how did she end up in prison?" As soon as the words left his mouth, his stomach sank.
Mai cocked an eyebrow. "Is she in prison? The last I heard, she had outwitted your feeble security measures and was still at large. Probably laughing at you."
Before he could explode, she placed her hand on the stack of papers and leaned forward. "We're in trouble, Zuko. You asked me to review our military finances and I have. You can say what you want about Ozai and Azula-"
"Can we please stop talking about them!"
"You can say what you want, but they were very smart, and very good at some things. Azula knew how to get what she needed out of people. She could even listen to them, when she had to."
"To real people, or the ones in her head?"
Mai ignored the outburst and dropped her voice, suddenly intense. "We can't go on like this. We need help. I'm trying my best, but I can't even understand half of these documents. There are people whose job it is to deal with these things. We have to trust them. We have to trust somebody."
"Like I trusted Azula? Like she trusted father? Like he trusted…like he trusted me? And don't even get me started on our 'loyal' subjects. Ozai's own men are guarding his prison cell right now."
"We should ask my father. Or even my grandfather. I can talk to him, if you're afraid to. He's the best."
Zuko snorted. "Trust a Bai Jiang? Everyone knows that the only family worse than mine is yours."
Mai rose, stately as a queen and cold as a statue of ice. "I remember blood." It was the ancient motto of her clan. "The Bai Jiangs are loyal to each other, Zuko. At least we know how to be loyal to someone."
She left him then. But the conversation stayed in his head as he ate alone, and later as he sat in yet another endless meeting with Earth Kingdom representatives.
He studied the bland, smiling faces opposite. The faces of diplomats and politicians, pliable as wax. They were too smooth and plump for the hard-working and careworn folk that Zuko had met on his travels. Those people had been true and honorable.
There's a difference between what people say and their true intentions. Of course he knew it! But how could they build trust and honesty between the nations if no one was willing to start? He had to reach out first. He had to set the example.
At least their soldiers will be well-paid.
The meeting was long and fruitless, like most of them. Zuko stumbled away with a throbbing headache and the uncomfortable suspicion that he had promised more than he had been given in return. Had those white-toothed smiles and polished words revealed a sincere desire for peace, or had they veiled hatred and greed? If only he could tell…
At least their soldiers will be well-paid.
A servant reminded him that he had to dress for the evening banquet. It would be starting soon.
"It can wait," Zuko snapped. "I still have work to do."
He ordered everyone else out of his office and locked himself in. There was so much to do and so much he didn't understand. And they wanted him to spend all evening at a fancy dinner?
An hour later, scrolls were lying haphazardly over every surface in the room, and one of the delicate lacquered cabinets was cracked where he had thrown a paperweight at it. He closed the door carefully behind him, so the servants wouldn't see the mess.
He waited impatiently while they wrapped him up in all those ridiculous layers of rich cloth that were supposedly necessary for formal occasions. Some fool even tried to put makeup on him. He batted the offending hand away and strode off, forcing the man tying his sleeves to scuttle after him.
He paused for a moment before entering the banqueting hall, placing both hands against the wall and leaning his forehead against it. Gods, he hated this.
Then he squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and strode into the room, head held high.
He had disposed with the pretentious fanfare of a grand entrance, doing away with the (irritating) trumpeters and the herald who announced all of his (stupid) names and titles. So he almost made it to his seat before one of the diners noticed him. The man nudged his neighbor, who looked around in confusion, caught sight of the Firelord, and quickly jerked to his feet – knocking over his wine in the process.
So it went, one person after another falling silent and hastily rising, until the entire crowd was facing him. Zuko cringed inwardly at the awkwardness. They bowed in unison. He inclined his head slightly and gave the traditional greeting: "I welcome you to my hearth, friends. As Agni, Lord of Hospitality, Host of Hosts, bestows his bounty of light and warmth, so I offer you mine, by his grace. Please, partake of my table and honor my home, in his name."
He reached down and lifted a small flask of oil. A small amount of oil, then bread, and finally wine would be fed to the small ceremonial brazier at the head of the room. First fruits were Agni's due, and no banquet could be blessed or right if they weren't given.
But, as he poured the oil, he wavered for an instant and – ominously – stumbled over the words of the ritual blessing. Somebody's already done this. The banquet started over an hour ago.
To stop now would be even more embarrassing than going on, so he finished the sacrifice as if nothing had happened. But his face burned as he took his seat afterwards.
At least he didn't have to talk to anyone. After his first, disastrous formal dinner, he'd had his own table set up on a raised dais. Now he could eat in peace and glorious silence.
His guests bowed to him one last time, then took their own seats. Conversation resumed, but the tasteful flute music in the background couldn't hide the fact that it was hesitant and faltering.
A servant discreetly appeared at his elbow to pour his wine. "Whiskey!" Zuko snapped. "Heng Mountain Special. Just bring the entire bottle."
The man was a testament to the quality of the palace serving staff: he didn't even blink at the Firelord's shockingly cheap and lowbrow request. "Yes, My Lord."
When the whiskey came, Zuko gratefully drained the first glass in a single gulp, and immediately felt the tension ease in his shoulders. Thank the gods.
He poured himself another and cradled it as he looked out over his "noble" subjects - all brilliant as peacock-flamingos in their gaudy finery, while war victims starved. Greedy assholes! Selfish, petty, money-grubbing bastards! Everything would be so much easier if it weren't for them, thwarting him at every turn.
Blind! That's what they were. Blind to the big picture, blind to the needs of others. Thinking only of their own status and pleasure. Heads shoved straight up their asses.
Zuko felt the pressure grow in his jaw like some living thing, crawling up to stab at his temples with needle-sharp claws, its heartbeat thumping behind his eyes. Fire Nation aristocrats were all spoiled. That was the problem. Not one of them had ever worked hard. Had ever suffered. Had ever known hunger, humiliation, loss. They were incapable of human sympathy because they didn't live like real humans-
"I think you're scaring Lady Hayashi."
Zuko blinked, and realized that he was looking at Lady Hayashi, who seemed pale. Her eyes darted around nervously, never meeting his own. Her husband, on the other hand, was glaring at Zuko murderously as he patted her hand.
"Can't say I blame her. Most people would get scared if the Firelord stared death at them for ten minutes straight." Cheng sounded amused.
Blast the old buzzard! He was the only man in the Fire Nation who would dare to be amused at the Firelord's expense. Zuko supposed he should feel sorry for frightening Lady Hayashi, but suddenly he'd had enough of feeling sorry for one day.
"I'm the Firelord. I'll stare where I want, how I want, for as long as I want, and Lady Hayashi will have to deal with it. The spirits know I don't want to look at you."
"Ha! So rude to a poor, helpless, old man! And here I came to check on you. I could hear your teeth grinding from fifty feet away."
"Just passing the time."
"You could have talked to someone. It is your banquet."
"Teeth grinding is more fun."
"Maybe the whiskey will help?" Cheng looked pointedly at the bottle. "You know, your grandfather and I used to share a glass from time to time. Talked about things."
Zuko took a long sip, never breaking eye contact with Cheng. Then he deliberately topped off his own glass. "Nice cozy chats, huh? Well, there's nothing like a little whiskey when you're plotting genocide or dividing plunder."
"Puppy! Azulon was damned shrewd. You could learn and thing or two from him."
"I don't think those are the kind of lessons I want to learn."
Cheng leveled a grim look at him from under his famously bushy eyebrows. "Azulon was the hardest man I ever met – and that's saying a lot – but that's a hard throne to sit. Maybe your sanctified rump could use a few calluses."
A muscle in Zuko's cheek twitched before he could stop it. "Are you saying that I'm soft? Because I promise you I've survived things that most people never even imagine."
"Are you talking about that scar on your face, boy? If so, you can stuff it. You and I are the lucky ones. Plenty of people lost more in the war than their good looks."
"To their own fathers?"
"Ah. So that's who your blaming for all your cock-ups?"
"Yes! I mean, no! Of course I've made mistakes. Our entire nation has. I'm trying to fix them, but you-"
Cheng wagged a finger at him, as if he were chastising a small child. "Men don't blame others. They're not afraid to take responsibility and they get things done. That's even more true for kings."
"Then you take your own advice," Zuko hissed. "Make up for a lifetime of killing and oppressing and exploiting innocent people, and help me fixing this mess. If you tell the senate to do something, they'll do it."
"You get the senate to do what you want. That's your job. But I'll tell you this: if you want to lead the senate and this nation, you'd better rethink how your treating its people. You act like we're all criminals and you're Agni-Almighty, come to punish us for our sins. By what right?"
Zuko opened his mouth to speak, but Cheng waved him off irritably, like he might a fly, and kept on going.
"You fought in the war, too – on both sides. That doesn't make you anyone's savior; it means that, at some point, you've been a traitor to everyone. Exploiting people? Your family profited from the war more than anyone, and you're still living off the blood money. Your wardrobe costs more than my entire estate."
Cheng had to pause for breath, mid-rant, and Zuko used the opportunity to muscle his way into the conversation. "By what right? Because I know what it is to suffer and struggle. Because I've seen how others have suffered and struggled in this war. Because I've found a better way, and that's what I want for everyone. We will not continue on this path of evil."
"So if it's not your way, it's evil?"
"Someone has to make this nation atone for its crimes. And I'm the only one in a position to do it."
The older man studied Zuko silently for several seconds. "Little jackass," he finally breathed. "You think you're entitled to play god because Ozai exiled you and burned that pretty face of yours. But it wasn't enough. If I were him, I would have tanned your hide every day until you learned some respect."
The fire in a nearby brazier flared up with the heat of Zuko's anger, and a vein in his temple throbbed red-hot.
"Is that all?"
"No. Where's Azula?"
The question was so unexpected that it stunned Zuko into silence for a moment. Then he straightened up so fast that whiskey slopped all over his costly robes. "Why do you ask?" he snapped, only to cringe inwardly a second later. He hadn't meant to betray so much with his voice.
"That one wouldn't have let you do something so stupid – not if she were here to do something about it. Have you locked her away in some hole? Or did you just kill her outright?"
"Neither." Zuko spoke around teeth clenched so tightly that he thought they would break. "I put her where she would be taken care of."
"Dragon dung. Nothing short of the Boiling Rock would hold that one. Maybe not even the Boiling Rock. What have you done to your sister?"
"Why do you care?" Zuko narrowed his eyes. "Plotting a little treason, maybe?"
"I might, if I find out you've hurt your sister. You can always judge a man by how he treats his family. If you abuse your own women, you're no good for anyone else, either."
"And you think Azula is better?"
"The princess is a vicious bitch, not a hypocrite. She didn't try to play saint, because she understood the nature of the job."
"And what would that be?"
"To really understand that, you have to figure it out for yourself. When you do, you and I can both start doing our jobs."
Cheng turned on his heel, military smart, and strode away – leaving an embarrassed and fuming Firelord at his back. Etiquette dictated that he wait to be dismissed by the Firelord, then bow before he leave. He might as well have slapped Zuko in front of all his guests.
At least they hadn't heard the conversation. Although the same couldn't be said for the acrobats wheeling and flipping nearby. They were all scantily clad, their lithe bodies gleaming with gold dust and reflected candle light as they slid sinuously through their routine. Zuko wondered darkly if they were spies, and for whom.
He stumbled back to his bedroom that night feeling tense and unhappy. It was a depressingly familiar feeling. His mind worried sluggishly at the day's problems and events, slowed by sticky tendrils of exhaustion, clinging to his thoughts like briars. Even through the tangle, Zuko knew there was only one possible conclusion.
Failure. From the first meeting to the final, disastrous encounter with Cheng, it had been yet another day of unrelieved failure.
Agni save me. I tried. I tried so hard. He opened the door, suddenly overwhelmed by bleak despair. Then he stopped short. Mai was waiting for him.
She sat at the mirror, her back to him. Two firm, silk-clad buttocks peeped out beneath a glorious sweep of glossy black hair. She was brushing it, parting the lustrous strands with long, even strokes. She paused and looked back at him over one shoulder. Zuko's weariness abruptly fell away, like he had dropped a weight of rocks.
He walked to her, hand outstretched, and reached for the brush. "Here, let me do that for you."
She tossed her head. Smooth, jetty locks bounced and swished with the movement. "I'm still angry at you."
"I'll make up for it." He grabbed at the brush again, only to be swatted. A short tussle ensued, which ended with Zuko in possession of the brush, and Mai pressed firmly into her chair.
He dropped a kiss on the top of her head, then ran his hands lovingly through the soft, heavy mass of tresses. "How did your day go, other than the part where I made you mad – again?"
Zuko ran the brush through her hair, instantly soothed by the rhythmic catch and drag. Maybe Mai was too, because her shoulders relaxed and she leaned back into him. After about a minute, she began to talk. Zuko gave it half an ear, more interested in the contrast between blue-black hair and white skin.
"I can see you're enthralled," Mai said dryly. "How about you? What was your day like?"
He closed his eyes and sighed, resting his chin on the top of her head for a moment. How to answer that? Zuko tried to pick through the thorny coil in his head, but couldn't seem to separate the strands, let alone see to the end of them. Finally he decided to talk about injuring the guard, the one thing he understood.
He knew all about rage and stupid mistakes and hurting people.
"You apologized?" Mai spun around to face him, obviously appalled.
"Zuko, the Firelord doesn't apologize. Especially when he's wrong."
His soothing cloud of warm, snuggly contentment evaporated almost instantaneously. "Well, what the hell was I supposed to do?"
"Pretend it wasn't an accident. Tell him that his sacrifice wasn't in vain. Convince him that his king is worthy of that sacrifice. Then he could have been proud. He could have told his children and grandchildren that he had been struck down by the mighty lord of fire, Agni incarnate himself. As it is, he has to live with the knowledge that he was ruined by the petty revenge of a spoiled noble brat. And no apology is going to make up for that."
"Spoiled noble brat?" Cheng's accusations flashed through Zuko's thoughts.
"That's how he'll see it."
"I don't understand you. Any of you. My entire life, one person says I have to be one thing, and another says I have to be another. I finally…I finally find myself and learn to be a decent person, and I'm still not good enough even for my girlfriend. If I'm so damned stupid, why the hell are you still here? Is it the power? The money? Or do you just want to make your parents angry?"
Zuko's voice had risen throughout the entire outburst, until he was practically shouting. He saw anger flash through Mai's eyes, but her own rage was always quiet and composed. It was more deadly that way.
Her voice was cold. "You know, for someone who's so determined to apologize to a common soldier, you don't seem to mind insulting me. I've never gotten an apology for any of it." She paused. "Including the time you forgot to get me out of jail."
Zuko dug his palms into his eyes. Would he never cease paying for his mistakes? Guilt and self-loathing reared their ugly heads again, and, as usual, anger came with them. Would people never stop throwing his mistakes in his face?
Mai grabbed his wrist before he could explode. "Zuko, I don't want to argue with you, and I don't want to lecture you. There isn't anything wrong with you. This is about your job. You need to rethink how you're doing it."
"You're telling me that, to do my job, I have to be something I'm not."
"I'm telling you that you have to be more than yourself. The Firelord is just a man, Zuko, but you have to convince people otherwise. The nobles. The armies. The homeland. The colonies. No one person has the power to keep them all in check. The only thing holding them together is an idea. The idea of the Firelord. You have to be that idea."
"And to do that I have to lie?"
"You have to create the truth you want. You're the Firelord. Reality is whatever you say it is."
A small frisson of disgust ran down Zuko's spine. He backed away fractionally. "That's sick. You want me to rule this country based on a perverted fantasy?"
"Don't look at me like that," Mai snapped. She straightened her spine, and her eyes shone steel. "If you don't like what you have to do, that's too bad. This is what you signed up for when you took that crown. Did you think it would be easy?"
"I thought I could lead with decency and honor and integrity. And I will."
"Maybe in a word of saints. But this world is ugly, and it's the ugly that gets things done. Why do you think Azula-"
"Don't talk about her!" Zuko roared, and hurled the hairbrush at the mirror behind Mai. It shattered spectacularly, came flowing down in a flashing waterfall of silver shards.
Long before the last one fell, Mai had pulled a blade from somewhere and pressed it firmly against his balls. Zuko backed away, both from the pressure on his testicles and from the look on Mai's face. He held his hands up, trying to seem as non-threatening as possible.
"Sir," a guard called through the door, "is everything all right?"
"I'm fine," Zuko replied carefully. "Just an accident." If he had said, "I'm fine soldier," the man would have known that the Firelord was under duress, and come crashing through the door with his comrades, with the intent to kill whoever else was in the room.
"Do you want us to call a servant?"
"No. They can clean up the mess tomorrow."
Mai twisted the knife a bit, forcing Zuko to stand on his toes. "If you ever," she hissed, "try to use violence on me, I will slice off your genitals and feed them to you. Then I will cut the rest of you apart slowly, painfully, piece-by-piece, until you're a quivering, screaming mass of bleeding agony."
Her face was pale with fury. Zuko knew that his was too. "Try it and see what happens." He kept his voice low, so the guards couldn't hear.
She responded in kind. "You think you're going to burn me? I promise you can't do it faster than I can lop your dick off."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? The only time you show emotion is when you're trying to hurt someone."
"Stop pretending you're better than me. You let your emotions hurt everyone around you."
Zuko glanced down expressively. "Oh, and this isn't your emotions hurting me?"
Mai rolled her eyes. "You'd be better off with it. You'd finally have to think with your head."
"You'd miss it though." He pictured Mai spread-eagled on his bed and moaning. He leered, so she'd know what he was thinking about.
"Please. You could be replaced by a bit of leather."
Zuko was thrown off balance. "What?"
"There's a shop on River Street just for that."
He blinked. "Really?"
"Yes. Males are redundant."
"That's not what you said last night."
"I was faking it."
Their faces were barely an inch apart now. Zuko was aware of Mai's warm breath on his face, and of the soft swell of her breast, rising and falling so maddeningly close to his own.
"More insults, Zuko? I need to teach you a lesson."
"Do it. Teach me a lesson."
She tried to look annoyed. "Not that kind of lesson."
"No. Stop it."
At some point, her knife had veered away slightly from his genitalia. He took advantage of the oversight to seize both her wrists. He pulled, so she bumped up against him. "Maybe I should teach you a lesson."
She twisted away, putting distance between them.
She looked him in the eye. "Oh, so you want this do you?" She reached up and pulled at a ribbon on her shoulder. The entire confection of gauzy silk immediately fell away, rippling down to pool at her feet.
Mai stood straight and haughty as a queen, even in her nakedness. "Well, take a good look at what you're not getting tonight."
Zuko didn't bother to argue, simply rushed her. He swept her into his arms and kept going until the bed rose up to meet them. He bore them both down onto the soft surface. Mai put up a token defense, so he let her roll him over a few times. He took the opportunity to squeeze her pale flesh and suck at her soft skin.
Somehow or rather, his pants ended up around his ankles and his lips around Mai's nipple. His hand was moving of its own accord, doing unspeakable things between her legs. Mai moaned and bucked and thrashed beneath him.
He drew back for a moment and felt a huge smile split his face. It was such an unusual sensation that it made his face ache.
Not for long, though. He had even better things to do with his face.
"Oh yes, there. Yes!"
"Wait a second, you need to move your leg…"
"Ow, you're pinning my arm."
"No, maybe if you.."
"How about this?" Smack.
"Do you like that? Huh? Do you like spankings?" Smack.
"Yes. Oh y-"
"Who's your Firelord?" Smack. "Say it. Who's your Firelord?"
Smack. "Who's your Firelord!?"
"Ah! You are! You are!"
Zuko jumped off the bed. He grabbed Mai's ankle and pulled, intending to drag her into a more convenient position – and straight onto his-
"Ow! Shit!" Pain exploded in his tailbone, as it knocked up hard against the stand next to his bed. He bent over double, clutching at his wounded posterior.
"Shit! Shit! Shit!"
"What is it?" asked Mai. At the same time, a guard called through the door. "Sir, are you all right?"
"Shit. Er, fine." Zuko did a spinning little dance, still folded in half. "Just an accident! Hit my tailbone. Uh, I'm fine, soldier!"
He realized his mistake as soon as he said it, but it was too late. Hearing the code word for "danger," the guards immediately burst through the door and spread out, taking up ready Firebending stances around the naked Firelord and his equally naked girlfriend.
For a long time nobody spoke.
Mai gathered the blankets around her chest.
Zuko stealthily wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Right," said the captain of the guard, finally. "All clear, Sir?"
"Uh, yes. All…All clear. Carry on. Please."
The guards spun on their heels and left, leaving Zuko to contemplate the said ruin of his arousal. It was better than looking at Mai and seeing the contempt in her eyes. But she surprised him, as she often did. Zuko heard a strange sound and turned to face her.
Mai was laughing. Mai. Laughing so hard that tears streamed down her face. Laughing out loud, mouth open, chest-heaving, body rolling. He stared down at his hands, unable to cope with the shame that was shriveling his insides.
"Oh, you fool," Mai gasped. "This is why I love you." His head snapped up. She was holding out her arms to him, tears of mirth still in her eyes – like she was inviting him to share the joke.
"Come back to bed."
He didn't have to be asked twice. Embarrassment already forgotten, he jumped back onto the mattress and snatched Mai up, flinging them both into a giggling, writhing heap of tangled limbs.
They passed the night frolicking with all the heated exuberance that two strong, young bodies could generate between them. In the morning, a grateful Firelord knelt at his lady's feet and kissed her knees in thanks.
By breakfast his joy had dissipated. The Minister of Civil Justice wouldn't even wait for him to finish his coffee before harassing him with a problem. Something about appellate courts. Whatever those were.
"You might want to reconsider certain provisions in the reform bill, My Lord. The Princess once proposed a rather different solution to this matter. It was really quite ingenious."
The old man was seated in a sliver of shade, leaning back against the wall.
A darker shade fell across him as a stranger stepped onto the porch, blocking the sun. "Have you seen a girl come through here?" the stranger asked. "About fifteen, traveling alone. If you did see her, you'll know exactly who I'm talking about."
Tobacco juice dribbled out the corners of the old man's mouth while he considered. He considered the stranger's solid form, his military bearing, his sword and expensive clothing. But mostly he considered the expression on the stranger's face. The famously difficult old curmudgeon wisely decided to be helpful for once.
He spat, careful to keep the dark liquid well away from the gentleman's fine boots. "Dark-haired piece, skinny, legs up to her chin?"
"The very same."
"Not too bright. Ran her mouth at one of the mercs and got hersel' tossed out onto the street."
"How long ago was this?"
"What's it to a high-and-mighty sir like you? That dirty, crazy-eyed drifter weren't no lady." A tongue flicked out slyly at the memory, licking tobacco stained lips. "And she was bruised up good."
The stranger stared down hard at the wrinkled face for a moment or two, then he smiled a smile that was full of teeth. "She's mine. The little bitch ran off, and now I'm going to drag her back by her hair. I paid good money for that one."
"Yeah? That so?" The codger's small, dark eyes gleamed. He made a ribald suggestion. They both laughed.
"Well, how about it? How long ago did my little beauty sashay through here?"
"Just yesterday, it was."
The stranger's smile grew wider. "And did you see which way she went?"