A/N: At long last, this is the fic I wrote for the Maiko Big Bang at banked-flame (dot) livejournal (dot) com. Go check out some of the others, once they get posted. Looots of really good Maiko writers participated this time!
Also, fanficforensics drew a really fantastic piece of art to go with this story. The link to that is on my profile.
And, as always, concrit requested. I feel like this is either the best or the worst thing I've ever written, so please let me know what you think!
"All right, gentlemen, you know the drill. We do not want a repeat of Shu Jing." The former Lieutenant Jee and current long-suffering Captain of the Guard oversaw the crowd of Zukos finishing up their preparations in the antechamber, straightening their gold-plated fake crowns, making sure all the pieces of their armor were firmly in place. The court painter flitted back and forth with a palette of pink and red paints, putting finishing touches on scars. At the front of the room, the event coordinator held up five fingers. Five minutes left.
The real Zuko stood off to one side of the hubbub, decked out like his guards in black and red royal armor. Much easier to run and fight in than the heavy silk robes that he wore while sitting on the throne.
"It'll be all right. You've done this how many times, now?" Mai stroked his cheek, a gentle smile on her lips.
"I'm going to run out of luck eventually," Zuko muttered.
"Don't say that." She kissed him on the corner of his mouth. "It's just a speech. Stop worrying."
"I can't stop worrying. I don't know how."
"You'll be fine."
Zuko sighed and pulled her close. "Love you."
"Love you too."
The dozen body doubles put on their helmets and formed up in front of the door. The coordinator held up two fingers, and Mai and Zuko separated. He gave her hand one last squeeze and took his place at the head of his entourage. Out of the wings came thirty green-robed former Dai Li agents, faces shadowed and hands hidden. Their leader, Xiang, bowed to Mai, and they too took their places behind the Firelord.
One minute left. Zuko turned to his main bodyguard, Yi Min.
"Let's hope his goes better than Shu Jing," he said.
"It would have to be pretty bad to not go better than Shu Jing." Yi Min gave Zuko a crooked smile. "I got your back."
"I know. Thanks."
No time left. Zuko took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and headed out onto the same pavilion on which he had been crowned, all his guards close around him, and Mai lurking somewhere behind and to the left.
The reaction he garnered was much different than it had been three years ago on this day. No cheers. No shouts of any kind, not even angry ones. Just silence. Heavy, judgmental silence. As soon as he stepped forward to speak, he could feel the individual, unfriendly glares of the crowd on him. He swallowed, flexed his fingers, and took a deep breath.
"My countrymen," he began. "You have my eternal gratitude for coming here today, on the third anniversary of the arrival of the Comet and the end of the great war. I am very pleased to announce that our reconstruction efforts in the Earth Kingdom continue to be successful, thanks to the involvement of the other nations and the Avatar. Continued cooperation is the key to continued success."
He suddenly felt very tired when he mentioned Aang. Everything was easier when he was around. People listened to him, mostly because the rumors of his bending prowess were the stuff of legend. But they would continue to listen once they met him. He was everything that Zuko wasn't: personable, eloquent, and effortlessly sincere. He cared about everyone and didn't even have to fake it as Zuko sometimes did when he just couldn't muster the strength to give a damn. The kid was diplomacy, personified. And unfortunately, he was a full day away by messenger hawk.
"As of yesterday, the Avatar and the delegates from the Southern Water Tribe were in the western Earth Kingdom, along with a number of Fire Nation delegates, aiding some of the Earth Kings in the matter of the established Fire Nation colonies on their land. I am also pleased to report that there is significant progress in this area. The three oldest provinces have moved to become self-governing within the next ten years with the blessing of the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, and the Avatar, in order to free them from the old era's imperialism while promoting governmental stability and cultural individuality that have developed over the last century."
A low rumble ran through the crowd. Zuko suspected that it was a rumble of displeasure. It was always displeasure. He took another deep breath.
"General Iroh and a few other distinguished individuals from around the world are in Ba Sing Se, as they have been for the last two years. The city has been stabilized, the government has been reformed, and the Earth King has been under the mentorship of King Bumi of Omashu since his return to the throne." At one hundred and sixteen years old, King Bumi was still as invincible as ever, and just as crazy. If there was anyone capable of cleaning up Ba Sing Se in one fell swoop, it was him. Kuei, annoyingly, was still the dorkiest and least-experienced head of state in the world. Which was embarrassing for him, given that the point of comparison was the twenty-year-old Firelord who talked to turtleducks when the pressure of ruling started to get to him.
Zuko now understood why Uncle valued a simple life of peace and prosperity over his royal birthright.
"The world is healing. The bonds between us and our brothers and sisters from the other nations are beginning to be repaired after being broken for so long. All over the world, families are being reunited, children are able to sleep at night without having to wonder if their mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters are safe. There are some wounds that take longer to heal. I will work for the rest of my life to undo the damage done by my forefathers. I ask for your support, your cooperation, and your patience. We are the children of Fire. We have desire, will, and passion. We have the strength and the means to be a tremendous force for good in the world, and it is our responsibility to so whatever it takes to restore the balance that was destroyed by the great war."
Suddenly, there was a series of loud bangs, and the whole plaza filled with a rush of dense black smoke. It happened so fast that it was impossible to tell where it came from, who did it, and what was going to happen next—
Disoriented, Zuko tried to figure out what just happened, but the crowd was no longer silent, they were doing something, he couldn't tell—running, shouting, either toward or away from the pavilion. The smoke reached him and he tried to cough it out, but it was too thick—
In the middle of his confusion, he felt a firm slap on his right arm. Yi Min was there, holding out his own helmet.
They both knew what they had to do. Hating himself just a bit, Zuko put the helmet on and disappeared into the crowd of his guards while Yi Min took his place. No sudden movements. Slowly, carefully, they made their way back indoors.
"I'm sick of this! I'm tired of having to run off whenever something happens, and something always happens! It's so... cowardly!"
"It's just self-preservation," Mai said. Once he had calmed down a little, she put her hands on his shoulders and pressed her forehead to his. He slumped beneath her touch. "Hopefully it won't always be this way. When the colonies are settled, and once people start trusting our exports... it'll calm down."
"My whole life I've had to protect myself. I hate having to be... babysat."
"Zuko, you've never been alone. Whether you like it or not, you've always had someone looking out for you. Your uncle, your mom, your friends, me..."
"Not like this, though."
"No... I suppose you're right. Even so, for now, it's necessary. Don't worry too much about it. Remember that things are better than they were last year."
"Yeah. I guess so."
"You should take the afternoon off, give yourself and everyone else enough time to cool off."
"I was going to." He already looked a little better, but there was still an annoyed, troubled look to his eyes. "Are you teaching your class this afternoon?"
"Yes, I was just about to go."
"I will." She patted his cheek. "Don't worry, all right?"
To most observers, Mai's classes were only what they seemed to be: an opportunity for young noblewomen to get some fresh air and exercise and to socialize with each other. But Mai never did anything "just because." If she wanted to socialize, she could throw a tea party. If she wanted fresh air and exercise, she could take a walk around the palace grounds.
By teaching young, nonbending noblewomen how to fight, she secured their loyalty. Benders of their class were trained from an early age, and all commoner girls learned basic self-defense in school. Mai's students, having not been touched by the Sun, would have been expected to pursue only ladylike pastimes, had it not been for the Lady's invitation to come and train with her. Because of Mai, these women were no longer helpless. And because they were the rising generation, the daughters of the old guard, neither was Mai. All she had to do was wait for the old nobles to die.
"My friend Ty Lee is never afraid," Mai said to her girls as they did their stretches. "She knows that if someone puts her in a position she doesn't like, she can always get herself out of it."
"How can she do that, Lady Mai?" asked Bao Yu, one of the more forward girls. Mai privately speculated that she was hoping to secure a position as a lady-in-waiting someday.
"Practice and discipline," Mai replied. "Since she was a little girl, actually. We both taught ourselves to fight, since our parents wouldn't find tutors for us." She straightened up from her deep lunge, and her students followed her. "How many of you have practiced after last week's lesson?" Only a few hands went up. Mai sighed. "Well, I suppose moving on is out of the question, in that case. Bao Yu, Hua, and Mei Zhen will demonstrate what they have been practicing."
The three girls came to the front of the class and prepared to show the others their moves. But a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye drew Mai's attention. She turned and felt a smile tugging at her lips as a familiar green-clad figure came striding across the field.
"I'm afraid this lesson will have to be cut short, ladies," she said. "We will meet again tomorrow, at the same time. And remember to practice, or I will be displeased."
"Yes, Lady Mai," they all chorused before bowing and running off.
While the girls were leaving, Suki met Mai halfway across the field and folded her in a firm hug.
"It's good to see you, Mai," she said. "How have you been?"
"Oh, same as usual."
"That bad?" Suki grinned. Mai shrugged.
"It's difficult, frustrating... but I think it's going well." She paused slightly and wrinkled her nose. "Better than last year at least."
"The riots." Suki nodded. "I remember. At least things are peaceful now, right?"
"Mostly. Were you at Zuko's speech this morning?"
"No, but I heard about it. It's pretty scary, that stuff like that still happens."
"Yeah. Our guards are used to handling it by now. Zuko still hates it, though." Mai held out her hand expectantly. Suki smiled and handed over one of her fans. They both fell into fighting stances, circling each other, fans open. "You're here to keep the Anniversary, right?"
"And to visit our friends."
"Where's Ty Lee and the rest of the Warriors?"
"I told them to have a chi-blocking lesson near the Dai Li's quarters. You know, as a reminder." Suki's smile took on a slightly wicked quality and she went for Mai's shoulder.
"Nice," Mai said as she blocked the attack. "But I'm not sure that's as necessary as it used to be."
"You trust them?"
"No. But they understand what I expect of them, and we've never had a problem."
"Hm. I never thought I could hate an earthbender as much as I hate all of them."
"Not that it's unwarranted, of course. Zuko and I have had too many headaches over the mess they left in Ba Sing Se." Mai watched Suki's feet, paying careful attention to how she carried her weight. Her fan flicked out as Suki lunged forward, and the Warrior quickly stepped aside to avoid the sharp edge.
"You have the reflexes of a cat," Suki said, impressed. "But you should attack more. You're too defensive."
"What if I'm luring you into a false sense of security?"
"In that case, I think you blew it by saying so."
"But I didn't say so."
Suki stood up and closed her fan. "Mai, my invitation still stands."
"With respect, so does my refusal."
"You could be your own woman! Come with us! You wouldn't have to play tea-party with people who only know how to lie and manipulate." Suki looked exasperated. "You're a grown, free person. You don't have to live your life the way your mother wanted you to."
"I'm not. If you understood the royal court, you would know why."
"Even so! Don't let people define you by who you live with! You can—"
"I know you've been holding this in for a long time, waiting to say it until you saw me again. As I said before: I am happy here. I love everything about it. What was right for Ty Lee was not for me." Mai snapped her fan open again. "I appreciate the offer and if things had been different, I might have accepted. Let's just put it behind us."
She resumed her fighting stance and faced off against Suki once more. They sparred in silence for a few minutes, Mai's cool mask concealing her irritation. Suki's irritation, however, was plainly visible in her furrowed brow and clenched jaw.
"I just don't understand why you're so attached to the life of a consort."
"I'm not a consort. I'm a politician. My boyfriend just happens to be the Firelord."
"How is that different? You're still looking pretty for crowds and throwing dinner parties."
"Yes, but that's not all I do," Mai said. "I watch everyone. I notice everything. I exploit their vices and their weaknesses. Zuko would never be able to do it himself, and there would be no progress in the Earth Kingdom. Our government is corrupt. Too many Ozai loyalists. Or worse, Azula loyalists. And since Zuko is not his father, he can't just make his enemies disappear."
"Sounds like a dirty business."
"It's a game." Mai smiled. "One where there are no rules and your opponents want you dead."
"He really is lucky."
"Of course he is. He's too idealistic to get anything done. It's almost impossible to believe he was raised in the royal court." She tucked a secret smile away within herself. Zuko was an enthusiastic dork, but he was her enthusiastic dork. "What about you? Have you seen Sokka lately?"
"Is it better to be a consort, or to never make a decision?"
Suki heard the challenge. Mai saw the gleam in Suki's eyes. Both of them smiled and flew at each other, fans gleaming in the sun. It was on.