Trial by Fire
Chapter 14: Settling In
Fat grinned when he heard the sound of feet running up the staircase and watched as the small herd blew by him. The children would bring him a lot more work, but the enthusiasm and life they brought as well would more than make up for that. Besides, he had grown complacent over the years, and well, fat, and a little extra moving around couldn't hurt.
The butler knew for a fact that Piandao relished the idea of two students, and three long term guests. The sword master had friends and acquaintances and work to do, but still suffered bouts of loneliness. Evenings with Iroh, good conversation, watching Zuko and Mai grow and develop into young adults was just what he needed. Well, an excellent woman wouldn't hurt either, but that was another story.
"Hang on a minute, kids," he chuckled. "I'll show you your rooms." He pointed out Zuko's and Mai's and Ty Lee's.
The pink clad acrobat clapped her hands together and shrieked with delight. "Mai, Zuko, look!" Her room was spacious and breezy with a large window looking out at the mountains and a spectacular waterfall. "It's twice as big as my room at home and I don't have to share." She dropped gracefully onto the simple wood frame bed, sniffed the flowers on the bedside table and then sighed dreamily. "Wow, I almost wish I could stay forever too."
"Master says that you're welcome to stay as long as you like, Miss Ty Lee," Fat called from the corridor. He was heading back downstairs to get the trunks.
"He's sooo nice," the girl enthused. "But my mom and dad would flip," she giggled, thinking about actually doing a flip, "and I miss them already."
Both Zuko and Mai felt pangs of envy, exchanging a look that communicated the feeling without words. Both wished they had family at home to long for. But, if they did, neither would be here in the first place. Touching her scar, Mai recalled vividly for a moment that day a few weeks ago, the day that had changed the direction of her life forever. Despite hating the scar and hating Azula, she was surprisingly content right now and eager to face tomorrow and the day after that too. She had real hope for a happy future, her and Zuko together.
"Do you like your room?" Zuko asked his girl.
Mai absorbed everything, the clean simplicity of the furnishings and décor, the freshness of the space, the feel of almost being outdoors while still being sheltered and comfortable. She nodded her head. "It's pretty great."
"Yeah, so is mine," the prince acknowledged with a small smile.
Instead of the cloying, almost claustrophobic dark reds and rich velvets of the Fire Nation palace, Piandao's estate as a whole and Zuko's room too, used red more sparingly. The sword master also included more browns and whites and even pinks, with the occasional splash of green as well, in the form of potted plants and trees. The linens and window coverings were light and airy, made from cream or white coloured cloth. The whole house somehow made Zuko feel more alive. He loved it and he was sure that he and Mai would be both comfortable and happy there.
"Let me show you the baths," Fat puffed as he rounded the corner again. He deposited the luggage in the appropriate rooms and then waited.
There were two huge bathrooms, one for the females and one for the males, each equipped with an abundance of towels and soaps and bath oils. The tubs were big and deep and luxurious, and filled with warm, soothing water would be perfect therapy after a long day of training. Ty Lee squealed again, dragging Mai by the hand and pointing out all the amenities. Fat and Zuko observed the ten year old's enthusiasm with wide eyes, the butler laughing at her antics.
"Is she always this perky?" he inquired of the prince.
"Pretty much; she used to drive me crazy when she came over to visit Azula." He hadn't intended to mention his sister or to say her name. It had slipped out unbidden, part of his memories, not all of them so very terrible. He watched Mai for signs that the girl had heard the princess's name. Nothing indicated that she had heard anything.
"It's okay, Zuko." So much for her not hearing. "Mention Azula all you want. I don't care."
"Oh, uh, oh, okay," he stammered in reply. He still felt bad however and guilty and probably always would.
"Well, I'll leave you kids to it; I need to get dinner started soon. Cooking for more than just the master will take some getting used to." With those final words, the butler left, heading down the stairs one more time.
"Hey, Zuko, come look at this," Ty Lee called.
Grumbling to himself about girls but not really minding, the prince did as he was told.
"Tomorrow, I'll take you on a real tour of the estate," Piandao promised over dinner. "There is some dangerous terrain here and I prefer we walk during the daylight." The kids were thrilled with the idea and chattered amongst themselves. "Would you like to come too, Katashi, or are you heading back to the prison?"
The warden scratched his head and peeked at Mai. "I'd like to see the entire place, but I'll have to leave after that. I was thinking of visiting again in a week or so, just a quick trip to see how Mai is settling in. Would that be convenient, Master Piandao?"
The swordsman couldn't help but chuckle at Katashi's almost over politeness. What a change from just a few hours before. "You don't need to call me master. Piandao will do. And yes, that's fine. We'll keep a room here for you. Will Mai's parents be visiting, do you think?"
"Thank you; and I doubt it. Letting their daughter come here at all was a step forward." The warden glanced at Mai again and smiled affectionately. Piandao thought it looked more like a grimace but who was he to judge.
"I see; that's unfortunate. Iroh has given me a bit of background on Mai and her family." Piandao was careful not to say anything negative. Hoshi and Akira were still Mai's parents, after all, and Akira was Katashi's sister. They were not perfect by any means, but perhaps they had made a start at being better parents. And sometimes relinquishing power was the best thing to do. At least the couple had seen that before it was too late.
"Yes, I thought it important that Piandao know something about Mai. It helps when teaching someone." The tea lover laughed then. "I wonder if Mai will take to the sword, or Zuko for that matter. It's a fine skill to have, firebender or not, and I'm sure it will do wonders for their concentration and agility and so much else."
"I want Mai to keep up with her knife throwing," the warden insisted. "That's her thing, something she chose. She loves it and she's good. I can only imagine how much better my niece will get if she keeps practicing."
"She can practice all she wants. We'll get her set up nicely, maybe even find her an instructor. Don't worry, Katashi. When you visit, we'll have a routine established and you'll see your niece thriving." Piandao was tempted to put a comforting hand on the warden's arm but thought better of it.
"Dinner is great, by the way," Iroh commented. He helped himself to more duck, licking his lips in anticipation of his next heaping plateful. "I must remember to tell Fat."
"Duck is your favorite, right?" Piandao asked, knowing the truth full well already.
"Indeed; nothing beats a fine roast duck. This one is particularly juicy and flavored just right. If I keep eating like this, my belly will get even larger." He chuckled again and patted the mound of flesh that filled his robes.
"Ah, we'll get you whipped into shape too, my friend. We can't afford to be soft, any of us." The master peered at Iroh knowingly. The next few years would be filled with intense training of both mind and body. Those two children had a lot to learn, and neither Piandao nor Iroh could afford to let themselves go. A lot might depend on their strength and knowledge when push came to shove. They had plans, big plans, plans that they would reveal to Mai and Zuko slowly and when the time was right.
"I look forward to it," the former general stated and returned Piandao's piercing look.
The three children, busy with eating and their own conversation, failed to notice the cryptic conversation beneath the real conversation. Their time was coming though, whether they were aware of it or not.
"What do you think, Uncle?" Mai had her arm linked with Katashi's and they walked around the sun baked courtyard by themselves, working slowly up to saying goodbye. A carriage waited on the other side of the main gate and the warden would take it to the coast and then hop a boat to The Boiling Rock Prison.
"I think," he smiled indulgently, "that I can leave you here and feel good about it. And that makes me very happy."
The tour of the estate had gone well. Even Katashi was impressed with the surroundings and the facilities at Mai's fingertips. They had all walked to the waterfall and picnicked there, letting the mist from the falls cool them down. It was tranquil and lovely, a soothing balm for troubled souls or troubled minds.
"Good place to think," Iroh noted. "And a good place to meditate too. That's something we need to work on, Mai and Zuko and Ty Lee too, while you're here."
"I always wanted to learn," she enthused. "This vacation is going to be so great." The realization that she would soon have to leave Zuko and Mai behind hit her then full force and her eyes swam with tears. "I'm gonna miss you guys so much." But she yearned for her family too and hated being torn, pulled in two directions. "I'll come back again; I promise." She lunged toward Mai and wrapped strong little arms around her friend, practically squeezing the life out of the girl.
"I'll miss you too and you'd better visit," Mai said as emphatically as she had ever said anything.
Ty Lee hugged Zuko next, more shyly, and he returned it with a blush. Neither said a word, but their fondness for each other shone clearly.
After lunch, Piandao showed off the forge where he made his own specialty swords and where Zuko and Mai would make their original creations as well.
"If you want, Ty Lee, you can make one too before you go home, unless you think your parents would disapprove." Piandao put the idea out there for the girl and she leapt on it.
"Sure, yeah, that would be cool, even though I don't really care about swords and stuff."
Mai was more excited than she cared to admit. The girl had never given swords much consideration. Small, hidden blades of various kinds were more her style. They suited her subdued nature, her veiled thoughts and feelings. Swords were more demonstrative, like Zuko, but something still appealed to her. Perhaps it was simply the chance to learn a new skill. Or perhaps, as she became more comfortable expressing herself, at least around those she trusted implicitly, the idea of swinging a sword was not so preposterous after all.
Besides, she would be able to spar with Zuko, learn something right from the beginning with him, like they were true partners. That idea definitely made her smile. She wondered who would be better at the swordsmanship, not that it mattered. Still, a bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone.
"What are you thinking about?" the prince asked her. He let his hand brush against hers.
"It'll be fun learning something along with you, you know at the same time." Her voice made the words sound more like a question, as if she sought Zuko's agreement on the matter.
"Yeah, you're right; I never thought of it that way." The idea made him smile too and he drifted off into daydreams about practicing with Mai, both of them improving as the days went by, helping each other to grow. The prince had not experienced that before. His sister, though two years younger, quickly outperformed him in firebending and left him behind, a disappointment to his father and to his grandfather. His mother hadn't cared, though. She was like Iroh and Mai. She had loved him for who he was, not for what he could or couldn't do.
"You'll have lots of chances to learn together." Iroh put an arm around each child and pulled them close into his chest, his love for them suddenly overwhelming. "And I have a feeling that the two of you will be very, very happy."
Mai watched and waved as her uncle left, staying beyond the gate until the carriage was long out of sight. With a heavy sigh, she stepped back into the courtyard, pulled the gate shut and locked it, before almost bumping into Zuko.
"Okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," she replied and rested her head on his shoulder for just a moment. "I think I'll be just fine."
A/N: I've finally made the decision to end this story, though the conclusion is open ended enough that I could continue or revisit it in the future, should I choose to. I've got a lot of work with Miscalculation and I have another story in the works as well.
Thanks to those who read and reviewed and enjoyed.