He had alerted her that he would be arriving home today, and he could see she was already waiting for him. The Capital remained as boisterous as ever, he thought, as he flew over it and watched the tiny humans walking around to for purposes that Xin Long knew nothing about… but he didn't care about what those purposes might be. Whatever they were up to was their business, and it surely was a downright boring business anyways, like most human matters were.
The gates to his refuge were wide open already, to allow him entrance through whichever door he chose. He slid inside through one at the easternmost end of the building, and he slowed down in order to land gently…
Yet as soon as he hit the ground he began prancing joyfully around his rider, who had been inside the refuge, tapping her foot on the ground as she looked at him sternly.
"You woke me up earlier than usual to come greet you, Xin Long…" Azula declared, while the dragon kept jumping happily "… and you're late. HOURS late. What was the point of waking me as you did just to make me wait, Xin?"
Xin Long seemed to be too cheerful to see Azula again to bother answering her questions. He pressed his scaly head against her neck and nuzzled against her, and Azula could only sigh as she patted his head.
"Yes, yes… I'm glad to see you too. Now what happened to you? Did you get distracted on the way at some point and I missed out on it?"
The dragon pulled away from her before retelling all about how, after waking her up through their mental bond, he had found a herd of hippo-cows pacing in a meadow, and he had enjoyed himself by chasing and frightening them. Azula raised an eyebrow at his story, one she hadn't quite watched through his eyes because she had been too drowsy to pay attention to what Xin Long was doing. Hippo-cows had been a recurrent thought on her mind during the morning, though, which had been quite weird… only now did she understand why that had been the case.
"Well, I'm pleased you were having fun. I hope you didn't eat any of them, though. My father won't take it well if I ask him to make up for some farmer's dead cattle…" Azula said, menacingly. Xin Long gave her a guilty look before saying he had spat some fire at a few of them in order to make them run, but hadn't eaten them. Azula rolled her eyes at that but smiled "You know, at times I think you're even worse than me, Xin Long…"
The dragon seemed to take it as a compliment, though, for he just pressed against her again. Azula petted him momentarily, but she frowned when she took notice of how unkempt the dragon was.
"What's all this? Soot?" Azula asked, frowning as she patted his scales. Puffs of ashes appeared wherever her hand landed "I suppose it should be of no surprise, considering you were wandering around volcanoes, but couldn't you clean up before coming here?"
The dragon was bothered by her question. He shook his head and reminded her that she had been nagging him about hurrying up in his return when he had been on his way. So if he was filthy, it was her fault! If she hadn't been so insistent, he could have dropped by at a river to clean up…
"My fault?" Azula asked, indignant "Considering you were wasting your time by chasing hippo-cows, it's MY fault?"
Now the dragon seemed happily guilty again. Azula gave him a judgmental look and Xin Long simply looked at her with amusement before scratching his head quite clumsily with one of his talons. Azula watched him with a confused look on her face.
"If you got fleas from those hippo-cows, you're NOT touching me again until you've cleaned up" she said determinedly, and Xin Long decided to probe her resolution by pressing against her "Xin Long! Quit it! Ugh, you ridiculously stubborn dragon! You're not asking me to clean you myself, are you?! Because I'm not going to do it! I won't clean anything, let alone a dragon who could easily clean himself up just fine!"
Xin Long looked at her inquisitively before asking her why she was so grumpy all of sudden. Azula scowled.
"You need ask? I already told you, you woke me early…!"
The dragon interrupted her by pacing around her and reminding her of the cloud of joy she had been in during the recent days. Azula had to fight down a blush upon the dragon's accusation before denying it… partially.
"I haven't been in a cloud of joy, as you call it" she grunted "Not as of late, anyways"
Xin Long wiggled his eyebrows and told Azula not to lie about things, which earned him to get flicked on the forehead, something that didn't hurt him at all.
"Your information must be outdated, Xin" Azula grunted "And I don't know how that's possible, but it seems it is. Did you miss out on his latest fight?"
Xin Long confessed to being bored by gladiator fights, at which Azula could only sigh before shaking her head and conveying everything to her dragon. Xin Long was quite surprised by what Azula was showing him, and more so to see how Sokka had been faring during the week after the combat. Azula had visited him a few more times, for training purposes, and though he kept trying to smile and pretend he was fine, it was clear he wasn't. Still, he had become less prone to dazes during the past few days, and he was slowly cheering up for real.
"I guess claiming he's fine works well enough for him. After a while he finally believes his own pretense" Azula muttered, looking pointedly at the ground "I can't help but wonder how will he deal with more people like the Stingray in the future, though. I guess on some level I fear… I fear he might just decide to return to his roots and revert to the same Fire Nation-hater he used to be because of them"
Xin Long looked at Azula with concern before brushing against her again in a gesture of affection. Azula smiled and patted him, only to withdraw her hand again to find it covered in ashes.
"Honestly, Xin… is this filth from your entire journey? Didn't you bother cleaning up at least once while you traveled?"
Xin Long simply shrugged and said it had been worth it. Traveling through volcanoes was a lot of fun, he said, and he enjoyed being close to the throbbing fire that he could feel underground. And considering Azula had been having a blast on her end, he had every right to enjoy himself with a little lava also.
"A blast, you say?" Azula asked, raising her eyebrows "And what exactly is that supposed to mean?"
She shouldn't have said anything, it seemed, for Xin Long decided he would show her exactly what he meant. He began showing Azula's very own memories to her, focusing quite a lot in the latest kisses she had exchanged with Sokka, and the fact that they had shared their bed during a whole night. If she really meant to say that hadn't been enjoyable for her, Xin Long said, then maybe she should try her luck by lying to someone who didn't know her as well as he did. It didn't matter how hard she tried, she could never deceive him.
"W-well, but that's not…! It wasn't as though it was the most fun experience in my life, I'll have you know!" Azula exclaimed, gritting her teeth before noticing there was something poking out of two of Xin Long's scales "What is…? A stick? How on earth did you get a stick prodding between your scales…? For crying out loud, Xin, and you didn't even notice it? You're a mess!"
The dragon didn't seem to care, insistent as he was in browsing through Azula's memories and proving to her that she hadn't been happier in her life than she was when Sokka had said he loved her that night. Azula rolled her eyes and removed the stick as he kept bringing about more and more memories, some unwanted, some irrelevant, and some slightly embarrassing… and naturally, the embarrassing were the ones that interested him most.
"Why are you looking at my school memories, you annoying dragon?" Azula asked, scowling "Quit it, that's… oh, spirits, what are you looking at that old recital for?"
Xin Long seemed quite amused by the memory he had found, one he hadn't paid much attention to before. Azula was a young girl in it, she couldn't have been older than ten, and she was singing a song. Xin Long was quite excited about his new discovery, and Azula could only sigh, picking up a brush that had been supplied to her for the purpose of cleaning up her dragon's mane.
"You really have no business looking at that, Xin…" she muttered, brushing through his white-blue hair while he listened to the song "It's not even that good a song. And I honestly shouldn't be cleaning you either, curse it, but if I don't do it, nobody else will… you'd better appreciate that, you heard me?"
But apparently Xin Long was too interested in the song to pay much attention to what Azula had just said. He complimented his rider on her singing voice, which brought a weak smile to Azula's face, and suddenly he began groaning and making weird sounds…
"Wait, are you trying to sing it yourself?" Azula asked, amazed "Xin, really?"
Never would Azula have imagined she would hear a dragon attempting to sing. The sounds coming out of him were so odd and off-tune that eventually she was rendered unable to do anything other than laugh at him. Making her laugh only seemed to fuel the dragon's intent to sing, and the more he tried, the more Azula laughed.
"Stop, stop already before I lose it!" she said, panting as Xin Long told her to join him and continued singing "You're… you've got the beat wrong, Xin, that's not exactly how it sounds"
Xin Long finally quieted down and looked at her inquisitively, asking her to sing it again so that he could see how he should do it. Azula rolled her eyes and sighed, still smiling, before she started to sing the song's lyrics, despite herself.
Xin Long listened intently, hoping to capture the song properly now. After a moment he began groaning again, and Azula chuckled.
"No, no, not like that" she told him "You're extending that note too much. See…"
And she showed him again. This time Xin Long caught the rhythm properly, and he continued to sing with her shortly, at which Azula could only smile as she finished the first verse.
"Who knew a dragon would enjoy music?" she said "Dragons, the most fearsome beasts in the world… and all they want to do is sing old Fire Nation songs"
Xin Long groaned joyfully at that and asked Azula to continue with the next part of the song. She simply smiled, brushing the dragon's tail gently, and despite herself, she complied with his request. Ah, curse that dragon for making her laugh like this…
Xin Long had been watching her as she sang, trying to capture the next part of the song, when he suddenly took notice of a presence over at the refuge's door. He turned quickly, and his motion startled Azula, who stopped singing when that happened.
"What's…?" she said, turning around as well…
She dropped the brush when she realized Sokka was standing by the door, his eyes open wide as he looked at her with amazement.
"W-what are you…?! What the hell are you doing there?!" Azula exclaimed, jumping and looking at him in horror. Well, that was the last straw… now the jerk had caught her singing?! If this had been some ploy of Xin Long to embarrass her she'd get back at him… she had no idea how, but she most certainly would.
"I was just dropping by because you hadn't come over for training today…" Sokka said, blinking a few times before smiling "Say… you sing really well!"
"How I sing is none of your business!" Azula shouted, wishing the blood wouldn't rush to her cheeks now, of all moments. Why could she control her body while dealing with anyone aside from him, when it was with Sokka that she needed to control it most? "Since when have you been standing there?!"
"Just a bit, you were saying something about fearsome beasts when I got here" said Sokka, scratching the back of his head sloppily "But really, though, you never told me you could sing!"
"Why the hell would I have told you I could sing?" Azula asked bitterly, turning around and brushing Xin Long again. Turning away from him was the only way to keep him from seeing her red face.
"Because now I think we should make a singing group, all three of us!" Sokka exclaimed happily "I know plenty of Water Tribe songs and…!"
"Ha! You want me to sing your Tribe's songs?! And you expect me to sing with YOU?" she asked, raising her eyebrows as she looked at him in disbelief "You clearly can't sing, Sokka. Your voice gives it away easily enough…"
"Hey! That's not true! I'm a very gifted singer!" Sokka exclaimed proudly, before clearing his throat and starting to chant "'Oh, I once found a pebble, a pebble of stone I fooooound…!'"
"What the…?" Azula said, cringing at the way his voice cracked mid-song. She looked at him with utter disbelief, though it seemed Sokka didn't care "Do tell me what other sorts of pebbles you'll find, if not stone ones…"
"'And the snow was piled high on the mountain, the mountain was piled high with snooooow!'"
"That doesn't even make sense!" Azula exclaimed, at which Sokka looked at her indignantly.
"Of course it does!" he said "How would you know if it makes sense or not when you haven't lived in snow?"
"I don't need to do that to know it makes no sense" Azula said, shaking her head and looking at him a little more calmly now.
He had been making a good recovery after his incident with the Stingray, and the few wounds he had sustained had healed by now, but he hadn't been his goofy self in quite some time. It actually relieved her to see him acting this way… though in no way did it relieve her to hear him sing.
"Well, I wasn't judging your weird song on sunsets and stars and whatever it was you were singing about!" Sokka said, proudly, just as Xin Long groaned at him and head-butted his chest as a greeting "Woah! Hello, pal! Been a while, huh?"
"I'm honestly having a hard time figuring what's worse, your singing voice or your singing material" said Azula, matter-of-factly, and Sokka pouted.
"Now, my voice isn't half bad! You're just all high-and-mighty because yours is…"
"Better?" Azula said, with a proud smile "Indeed, it is. But there's really no point of comparison when your voice nothing short of dreadful"
"Hey!" Sokka said, glaring at her as Azula picked up the brush again "Well, then, if I'm such a bad singer and my voice has scarred you for a lifetime, I guess you ought to do something about it…"
"What do you mean?" Azula asked, frowning, and Sokka smiled mischievously.
"Well, keep singing that song of yours and I'm sure you'll forget how badly mine sounds!"
"You're just trying to get me to sing again, aren't you?" Azula asked, between gritted teeth "Not in a million years. Why would I sing for you?"
"And why not? You have a beautiful voice!" Sokka squeaked "It's a waste for you not to sing more often… I've been hanging around you for almost a year now and it's the first time I've heard you sing!"
"That still isn't going to convince me of anything, if you must know" Azula said, passing the brush at him. Sokka almost dropped it, taken by surprise by what she had done "Be of some use and brush his mane, it's probably full of sticks and dead bugs…"
"Dead bugs?" said Sokka, looking at Xin Long who just seemed to smile happily "You ought to eat those, not hide them in your hair, pal"
"Oh, is that what you do with your own dead bugs?" Azula asked, raising her eyebrows and giving Sokka a very sarcastic smile. He stared at her with disbelief before beginning to drag the brush down the dragon's hair.
"Stubborn woman… just because I heard her singing, I mean, really…" he muttered.
Xin Long seemed amused to watch Sokka complying with Azula's demands like that, and Azula seemed relieved that he had finally decided not to retort to her. She found another brush and continued cleaning the dragon's tail, and Xin Long seemed beyond pleased by their attention.
"You're really filthy, though" said Sokka, grimacing as he plucked out a spiderfly from Xin Long's hair "And if I'm saying it it's because you are… Why are we cleaning him, again?"
"Because, as you noted, he's filthy. Why else would we do it?" Azula said, matter-of-factly "You just answered your own question, Sokka"
"But, say… if someone could have anyone else doing her dirty work, meaning, cleaning up her pet dragon…"
"He's not a pet" Azula groaned.
"Then it'd be you, right?" Sokka finished, ignoring what Azula told him.
"Truly, I could have someone else do it for me, but in truth, I'd rather not" said Azula "He is my dragon after all…"
"So you refuse to give anyone else the honor to clean Xin Long…?" Sokka asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Pretty much" Azula said "I shouldn't even give it to you, but alas, you looked like you needed something to do. And I can't have you lounging around doing nothing other than bugging me about my singing voice…"
"I sort of came hoping for training, not for being a dragon's hairdresser…"
Azula chuckled, something that had Sokka frown. She smiled before explaining what amused her so.
"Xin Long seems to think you've got a double standard. You were perfectly willing to brush my hair once, but not his?"
Sokka actually grew flustered at that, which apparently was the dragon's intent. Sokka looked at him accusingly.
"And how do you know that, you silly lizard?" he asked, raising an eyebrow "Are you that close to your rider, huh? You share every little thing, is it?"
Xin Long nodded enthusiastically, which made Sokka slightly uncomfortable. So that would mean Xin Long knew about Ember Island… nevertheless, that wasn't the issue at the moment. Sokka jabbed Xin Long with a finger, and he was about to tell him off for making fun of him when another arrival appeared at the dragon refuge.
"Princess" said the familiar voice of the Captain, startling all three of them.
"Captain?" Azula said, turning to look at him "Came to join the brush party, did you?"
"Hey there" Sokka said, waving clumsily at him while Xin Long spewed smoke in Rui Shi's direction, as he often did when he saw a soldier or guard, no matter who it was.
The Captain waved away the smoke with a hand, and turned towards Azula exclusively.
"Not at all, Princess. Your father is requesting to speak to you"
Azula frowned at that. She looked at Rui Shi for a moment before putting away the brush.
"Did he say for what purpose? Or is he still not disclosing the subject of our meetings with guards such as yourself?"
"He didn't give away the topic" Rui Shi admitted, which came to no surprise to Azula "But he didn't say it was a war meeting, at the very least"
"Then I take it it's not over an urgent matter…" but that wasn't exactly reassuring for the Princess. If her father wanted to talk to her privately, it could be over something that could get her into trouble… but it could also be over something far less worrisome than she took it for. What were the odds that her father would have found out about the strange twist her relationship with Sokka had undergone recently? She sighed and shook her head, moving towards the gates of the refuge while trying to appear calm. She was thinking too much of this, surely "Very well, then"
"Wait, are you just going to leave me here brushing your dragon?" Sokka asked, and Xin Long suddenly darted past him to keep up with Azula "… okay, you're going to leave me here without a dragon to brush, even"
"Is it really that hard for you to live without me, Sokka?" Azula asked, mockingly, trying to ignore the way her heart drummed in her chest as she awaited his answer to that.
Rui Shi watched Sokka carefully, wary of what his response might be. Sokka didn't quite miss the way the Captain was watching him, and thus his response was to slink away, catching up to the dragon and his rider, who were walking towards the front of the Palace. Rui Shi stayed behind, his eyes studying Sokka carefully before he decided to tidy up Xin Long's refuge instead. No matter whatever was happening between the Princess and the gladiator nowadays, he was certain he would be better off not knowing anything about it.
"It just might be, who knows…?" Sokka muttered when he reached Azula. Azula eyed him cautiously to find him smiling mischievously at her, and she rolled her eyes and kept walking, patting Xin Long's head.
"You do need a bath…"
"Hey, that's not fair, I took one yesterday and I still smell fine!" Sokka declared.
"I'm not talking to you, moron" Azula said, sighing as she caressed Xin Long "You could go find yourself a river while I talk to my father, Xin. But try not to eat anyone's cattle if you do that, please… And I guess I could be telling that to you that as well, Sokka. You're also the kind who would eat cattle if nobody's keeping an eye on you, aren't you?"
"N-not at all. I don't eat raw food" Sokka said, folding his arms over his chest "Not even when we were in the forest did we eat raw food!"
"D-don't even remind me of that…" Azula said, shivering "I haven't touched anything remotely related to komodo rhino products ever since"
"You might be surprised to hear me neither" said Sokka, chuckling "It'll take a while for me to actually get down to eating that again…"
"That's rather impressive, to tell the truth… here I thought you'd be over the trauma in a heartbeat" Azula said, raising her eyebrows as she looked at Sokka with curiosity. He simply shrugged and smiled at her, trying not to lose himself in the shade of her amber eyes.
"See, I keep surprising you and you just won't admit it… all the same as I surprised you with my amazing singing voice!" Sokka exclaimed proudly, and Azula rolled her eyes.
"What really surprised me was the absurd song you were singing, I knew your voice would be terrible. Please tell me that's not an actual Water Tribe song…"
"Of course it is! Want to hear the rest?"
"See, it goes like this…" Sokka said, ignoring her negative completely "'Up in the sky fall the snowflakes, the snowflakes fall from high above, and the biggest treasure we can imagine is a roasting meal of booooooar!'"
Azula was covering her ears with her hands when he began singing again, but she lowered them quickly when she realized they weren't alone. Sokka, being as careless as he often was, continued singing inspiredly until he had finished his verse, and he was quite surprised to find Azula had stopped walking and wasn't covering her ears anymore.
"Heh, how did you like that, Azula?" he asked, proudly, turning around towards her "Not so displeased by my singing voice anymore, are you?"
"I believe anyone with functioning ears should be displeased by your singing voice, gladiator"
Sokka froze at the sound of those words… and he turned with a nervous smile to regard the Fire Lord, who was looking at him with a raised eyebrow, a group of Imperial Guards flanking him.
"And as far as I know, my daughter has functioning ears…" Ozai said.
"I used to have them until he began singing. Now I'm not so certain I do" Azula said, and Ozai smirked. Sokka only seemed flustered at that, and he backed up slightly. He felt much safer standing closer to Azula than to her father "The Captain of my Royal Guards just told me you had summoned me, Father. You didn't have to come out here…"
"It wasn't about an official matter, we could have met virtually anywhere" said Ozai, waving a hand to give the matter no importance "When I was told your dragon had returned, I concluded you'd be with him and thus I came here"
Xin Long groaned towards Ozai, who simply nodded towards him. Xin Long seemed satisfied by his greeting and proceeded to wander through the garden, most likely looking for critters he could chase after while the humans spoke of whatever they had to talk about.
"Though I will say it might have been far more comfortable to meet someplace where your slave hadn't been singing… Why he is here?"
"He just came by for training, nothing else" Azula declared, not too quickly to keep her father from suspecting that the question made her nervous, and also without stuttering or faltering as she spoke. The last she needed right now would be for Ozai to realize her relationship with Sokka had changed… into something she still didn't quite understand, but it definitely had changed "What did you wish to talk about, then, father? Or would you rather I send him away first?"
"It's of no matter if he's listening or not" said Ozai, at which Sokka smiled a little. It was good to know he would be allowed to stay "I only meant to ask you about your birthday, we haven't discussed it yet. Will you choose a feast or a ball this time around? I know you tend to favor the former…"
"Ah, and I shall this year as well, Father" said Azula, with a smile "Balls hardly hold any appeal for me, as you already know…"
"Given recent events, I thought I'd do best to ask" Ozai said, nodding "Then a feast it is…"
"Wait, wait, wait… feast? Birthday? What's… whose birthday? Your birthday?!" Sokka said, looking at Azula with wide eyes "Your birthday is coming and you didn't tell me?!"
"And why was I supposed to tell you that?" Azula asked, raising an eyebrow.
Ozai was slightly pleased, despite himself, to find that the gladiator hadn't known his daughter's birthday was approaching. That fact alone told him their relationship wasn't as tight as he was beginning to dread it might be.
"W-well, I guess because I've been your gladiator for about a year now and…"
"It's been less than a year or else you would have been around on my previous birthday. Common sense, don't you think?" said Azula, with a sarcastic smile.
"B-but still…!" Sokka said, looking at her with wide eyes "Wait… feast?!"
Azula rolled her eyes and shook her head.
"I should have known that was all your brain would register…"
"You'll have a birthday feast…" he said, his eyes gleaming as he wondered what sorts of royal dishes would be served for the Princess.
"Indeed, I will. What is it to you?" Azula asked, raising an eyebrow "You're not invited…"
"Hey, but I'm your gladiator!" Sokka exclaimed "I should be invited! I've made the last year of your life very exciting and I actually am the reason why you can celebrate that feast in the first place… how many times did I save you the last year, huh, huh?"
Sokka smirked at Azula with that, and she felt the mightiest need to punch him. Yet, to her surprise, punching him wouldn't be necessary…
"As a matter of fact, Azula…" said Ozai, startling both gladiator and sponsor when he interrupted their banter "I believe your gladiator ought to attend your birthday feast"
"What?!" Azula exclaimed, just as Sokka jumped in celebration.
"Yeeeah! Now we're talking!"
"Father, that's completely absurd!" Azula said, looking at him in disbelief "He's… he's going to eat all the food! You have no idea how brutal his appetite is, you can't have him in my birthday feast just because…! Wait, why would you want him in my birthday feast, Father?"
"I dunno, but maybe slaves with good behavior are allowed in feasts now in the Fire Nation" said Sokka, proudly, and Azula glared.
"If that were the case, I'm pretty sure you'd be the last one allowed in it"
"Are you both like this all the time?" Ozai asked, rubbing his forehead. Azula swallowed and felt the blood draining from her face. She didn't want to displease him… anything but that.
"I'm sorry, Father. Excuse us, we're… not, not at all" she said, solemnly. Her change of demeanor surprised Sokka. It was almost like watching a Private in the army suddenly realizing he was speaking to a General… "In any case, allowing him to attend the feast would not be a good idea, Father, I honestly advise against it. He doesn't know how to behave himself, as you can tell already, and he will eat everything in his way, even if it had human form…"
"That's not true!" Sokka squeaked, offended "I'm not a cannibal!"
"Oh, right, implying there are limits to your gluttony…" Azula said, with disbelief. Sokka kept looking at her with irritation.
"The concerns you have are quite legitimate, Princess Azula, but, nevertheless, I still believe it will be best if he attends the feast" said Ozai, sternly "You will have to find proper clothes for him to wear, and he will do best to behave himself… or else he will have to answer to me, personally"
Sokka swallowed. The way the man had glared at him with that last sentence made him wonder if the food really would be worth it…
"Isn't it simpler to keep him in his best behavior by not having him come?" Azula asked, frowning. Her father had underlying intentions, without a doubt, but she rather doubted they could be worth the trouble…
"It could be. But he will be attending, and it's my final word" Ozai declared, turning towards her exclusively now "We will have to speak about the finer details of your feast later on, I believe. We must also speak about which guests should be invited…"
"I suppose" said Azula, nodding "We could do that now, though, couldn't we? If it's imperative…"
"It isn't, I said" Ozai muttered "There's still over a month until your birthday arrives. We can talk at leisure later, when your gladiator isn't busy tailing you"
"Indeed" said Azula, nodding again while Sokka looked at Ozai with irritation.
"I'm not tailing anyone… not really…" he muttered, lowering his head.
"I will meet you again later, Azula" said Ozai, bowing his head towards his daughter curtly before turning around and leaving, his guards flanking him.
Azula and Sokka watched the Fire Lord leave, frowns on both their faces. Xin Long noticed the important matters had been tended to, and he approached them cautious and curiously.
"Why does your dad want to feed me?" Sokka asked, scratching his head "It's… awfully generous in his part, don't you think?"
"I have the suspicion he's not doing this out of generosity… though he probably would say otherwise if asked" Azula muttered, a hand on Xin Long's neck "Don't even bother trying to ask him about it, though"
"Why would I do that?" Sokka asked.
"You're the sort of man who does the stupidest things he could without putting any thought to it" Azula said "And you know that's true. Confronting my father about this yourself is the worst thing you could do about it"
"But you know how to play him, I take it?" said Sokka, smiling a little.
"I know him better than most people, at least" Azula stated "So don't get yourself into trouble pointlessly if you can avoid it, got it? I'll sort this out myself. In any case… I suppose we ought to be off to clean you up, Xin?"
"Uh… 'we' sounds like a lot of people, huh?" said Sokka, smiling uncomfortably. Azula looked at him in confusion.
"What do you mean? You don't want to come? Well, I can't really blame you, washing a dragon isn't as fun as it sounds…"
"Nah, it sounds like it could be, but…" said Sokka, biting his lip "I think I've got training to do. You know, more fights will come soon, and I've got to be in shape, don't you think?"
"Well, I suppose… but weren't you planning on training with me?" Azula asked, raising an eyebrow "That's the main reason you bothered coming all the way here, isn't it?"
"Indeed, but… see, you've gotta bathe the pet!" Sokka exclaimed, at which Azula glared at him "And who knows how long that will take you, so… don't worry, we can meet again tomorrow or whenever you've got time to spare for me. It's fine"
"Are you sure?" Azula asked, frowning "You look…"
"What?" Sokka asked, as she studied him with her eyes. He smiled and dropped his hand on her head, a gesture that seemed to irritate her slightly "Stop worrying about me. I told you I was fine. I'll see you later, Azula"
"Right…" she said, making sure her hair hadn't been ruined by Sokka's gesture.
He grinned at that and turned on his heels, walking towards the Palace gates carelessly. Azula watched him go, his behavior striking her as odd… and her father's as well. What had gotten into both of them in the last few minutes?
Xin Long pressed his snout against her arm, and Azula's attention returned to her dragon. She patted his head before raising her eyebrows.
"So… time to clean up, Xin? Or are you going to keep behaving like a spoiled brat, as you have since you got here?"
Xin Long seemed to agree with taking a bath at last, and Azula smiled. She led him back to the refuge, where the Captain helped her saddle Xin Long, and soon enough they had darted through the sky together, directed towards a nearby river.
Meanwhile, the careless gladiator was no longer as careless as he had pretended to be while leaving the Palace. He arrived to his house to find Song sorting the new spices she had acquired, and she looked up at him, surprised he had arrived so early.
"That was fast. Is training over so quickly?" she asked, and Sokka shook his head, his eyes closed as though he was thinking hard about something.
"Her birthday…" Sokka muttered, now looking at Song with wide eyes "Her birthday's coming, Song!"
"Uh… huh?" said Song, as Sokka paced around the living room, grimacing.
"It's her birthday, her birthday and she didn't even tell me! She really should have told me, I could have used a warning of some sort!"
"I guess you could have…" said Song, blinking blankly "What's the big deal, though?"
"What'd you mean, what's the big deal?!" Sokka exclaimed "I…! I need to get her something. A present. Of any sort! She… she deserves a present, alright, Song?! So I've got to give her something great, something worthy of her, something she's always wanted… though… haha, how the hell am I supposed to give a rich Princess something she doesn't already have?"
"Well… you could write her a poem!" said Song, happily, and Sokka grimaced.
"Nope, been there, done that, and it just made her laugh at me"
"Y-you actually wrote a poem for her?!" Song exclaimed, surprised, as he blushed.
"And I think I ought to go for something… bigger, you know? Something awesome!" Sokka exclaimed, with a fist in the air.
"W-well… that sounds nice" said Song, gulping "But you're right. How would you find something awesome for a girl who already has everything she could ask for?"
"It's a problem…" said Sokka, grimacing "A big problem. I mean… what could she possibly need that I could help her with? Whatever she asks for she can get, right? So… though, wait. Maybe… maybe not something she needs..."
"What, then?" asked Song, puzzled as Sokka's eyes lit up and he looked at her proudly.
"I've got an idea"
Yuudai knocked over his cup, drenching his clothes with milk. Mai sighed. It was truly unbelievable how her son kept soiling himself in all sorts of ways. If he wasn't soiling himself most literally, it would be with food, and if it wasn't with food, it was with dirt. He must have gotten that from Ruon Jian, she was certain she hadn't been like this as a child… but if Yuudai was to eat and drink properly one day, he should start learning how to do it as early as possible, regardless the countless mishaps.
"Come on, Yuudai" she said, lifting him in her arms and trying not to stain her own clothes with his as she carried him away.
Life with a son was a little more interesting than she had expected it to be… it was tiresome, but it wasn't actually boring. And it made her all the more happy to see her husband when he finally arrived for the day, not only because it was good to see him, but because she could charge him with watching the baby while she rested. Ruon Jian would comply, but soon enough he would fall asleep as well, exhausted after a long day of work, and Yuudai would end up waking them both with a start when he began crying inconsolably because nobody was paying him attention.
The days were somewhat repetitive, and she hardly left the house nowadays… but she found herself enjoying it despite that. Taking care of her son wasn't as mundane a task as she thought it would be… though maybe it was. Maybe now she enjoyed mundane… the thought made her grimace. That shouldn't be right…
She heard a knock on the door, which surprised her. Ruon Jian couldn't be arriving at this time, and she hardly ever had visitors nowadays, both Azula and Ty Lee were too busy with their gladiators to drop by to see her lately. So who could it be?
One of the servants answered her question, once Mai had finished changing Yuudai. He cleared his throat, and Mai turned to look at him expectantly before he told her who the visitor was.
"Prince Zuko is here" he said, bowing before Mai "Should I send him away?"
Mai's eyebrows rose as she registered the information. Why would Zuko be here? It was odd that something would bring him to her house without warning…
"No, let him in. I'll be with him shortly" she said, and the servant nodded.
Zuko was sitting by the house's inner garden, looking at the plants without much interest, by the time Mai walked towards him, Yuudai in her arms. Zuko jumped to his feet when he noticed her presence, and he looked at her and her son nervously.
"H-hey…" he said, gulping "Sorry I dropped by so suddenly"
"It's fine, you're not really intruding on anything important" Mai said, with a smile.
Yuudai waved his hands towards Zuko, looking at him with curiosity as he babbled baby nonsense. Zuko smiled weakly at him, despite not being too sure of how to deal with a child. It was the first baby he had dealt with… at least, since he'd been a kid himself.
"Hello" he told Yuudai, who seemed happy to see he was being addressed directly "How are you? Enjoying yourself with your mother?"
"He's probably growing tired of me" said Mai, smiling "Mine is pretty much the only face he sees all day long…"
"I can't see why that would tire him… uh, well, I mean…" Zuko said, clumsily, before sighing in defeat "Sorry. I shouldn't have said…"
"It's okay" said Mai, sitting down before the garden, Yuudai on her lap "It was quite flattering of you, if anything"
Zuko gulped before taking his seat, keeping some distance between him and Mai. Here he was, hoping to make this visit anything but awkward, and it was the first thing he had done…
"Why did you come all of sudden, Zuko?" Mai asked, her gaze on Yuudai as she fixed the child's black hair "I take it you're not just dropping by to say hello, are you?"
"I guess not" said Zuko, sighing "I suppose I wanted to see a friendly face… and I wanted to see the one person who gives me some clarity when the rest of the world is a blur"
"Who, Yuudai?" Mai asked, startling him. She smiled at that "I have a hard time believing I've given you clarity, truth to be told…"
"Well, in a way, he's given me some too" Zuko said, smiling and looking at the boy. The first time he had seen Mai holding him he hadn't cared whether or not he was his son, and for once he had been able to forget all about his pain regarding his situation with Mai just by looking at the little boy "But I really meant you. You're… honest. And you're not biased, I think…"
"And who is?" Mai asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Everyone else, I guess" Zuko muttered "For better or for worse. Some people treat me like I'm great… others think I'm scum. Which one is it?"
"Whichever you want it to be, of course" Mai replied immediately, at which Zuko was quite startled "Ultimately, you're the one who decides who you are, Zuko, simple as that. What brings this about, though? Did something happen to you?"
"I guess you could say a lot of things have happened" he said "It'll take a while to explain everything… but I can give you the short version of the story, I suppose"
"Then fire away" said Mai, smiling when Yuudai suddenly laughed at random.
"Well… Ty Lee dragged me to Ember Island with her, Haru, Azula and her gladiator" said Zuko "And I guess I let myself get depressed because I couldn't help but remember my mother while I was there. We were at the beach at night and Ty Lee was trying to get me to spill what troubled me, which displeased Azula, for some reason. She stormed off later, and Sokka was worried about her, but I told him not to bother. I said a few things that… well, probably weren't right, but I said them anyways. And then he punched me and began defending Azula, telling me I was an awful brother. I didn't quite respond… I didn't know how. And well… ever since, I've been confused. I mean…"
"Things aren't as simple as you thought they were?" Mai asked, looking at Zuko sideways.
"All my life, I've thought Azula is out to get me" Zuko muttered "She was just a kid, but she always did mean things to me and just laughed about it later. Almost every time we played together when we were toddlers she ended up making me cry one way or another. My mother would always comfort me while she got away with it all, and I guess all my life I've felt like… like I'm living in the repetition of that. Maybe I don't bawl my eyes out about what Azula did anymore… but I still felt like I'm her laughingstock, like she's always two steps ahead of me, mocking me and taunting me. And when I try to reach her, I'll just trip with my own feet and fall on my face… and she'll smirk because I proved that I couldn't be up to her level. And it's…"
Zuko froze at Mai's sudden declaration. He looked at her in confusion, and she didn't look back.
"That way of thinking. Yours, hers… you're both really stupid when it comes to each other" said Mai, shaking her head "I've always thought so, but it's the first time anyone seems to want my opinion on the subject…"
"Wait, but… how is it stupid? I mean…"
"You do realize Azula is two years younger than you, don't you?" Mai asked "You're her older brother. You have the same father, the same mother… and yet you two act like you're trying to vanquish one another, as if being siblings was the same as being enemies. Like trying to overcome the other is what your life's purpose should be. And that's plain ridiculous"
"W-well, but wait…" said Zuko, frowning "That she's younger doesn't matter, not when our father has been determined to pretend I don't even exist for years now. He's trained her, taught her everything he knows and pushed me aside because she's the better child and I'm just a nobody in his eyes. You really think it's ridiculous for me to complain about that?"
"I think it's ridiculous for you two to keep competing with each other over your father's appreciation, that's what I think is ridiculous" said Mai "There's a certain degree of sibling competition that is normal, Zuko… but you two take it to a level that's beyond ordinary, and that won't end well if you both keep going at this rate. If your father said he'd love you if you killed your sister, would you do it?"
"W-what?!" Zuko said, shocked "I…! What's that about, Mai? I wouldn't… I couldn't even do it, Mai, that's crazy…"
"Let's pretend you can" said Mai "Pretend you're more skilled than she is at virtually anything. Pretend you can catch her off guard and do it. She'll be gone, and the throne will be yours when the time comes. Would you do it, Zuko?"
Zuko froze at that question. What the hell was that? Mai was crazy! How could she even ask such a question, it was absurd! But… what would he do?
He pictured the scene she had just described to him, he thought about it as though it were truly happening. He could imagine her standing with her back towards him, unaware of the fact that he was about to do it, to behead her with his swords…
"You're crazy" he told Mai, shaking his head and dropping his gaze "You're crazy, Mai. I… I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't"
"Not even if your father would give you all his love and appreciation?" Mai asked, raising her eyebrows.
"What sort of a father would want his children to kill each other only to choose the best of them and decide that's the one he loves?" Zuko said, gritting his teeth.
"Well, then, there you have your answer" Mai said, at which Zuko looked at her again.
"Yes, your answer. It's ridiculous indeed, Zuko, because you two keep competing over your father's love, but is that really what you think you'll gain, Zuko?" Mai asked "Getting Azula out of your way so that you can become Fire Lord one day… is that the way into earning your father's love? Is that love, really? Is that the way two siblings should act?"
"No…" said Zuko, dropping his gaze "It's not. And I know it's not. She is my sister, and I should get along with her better than I do, but it's just… hard. And she doesn't make it any easier"
"What efforts have you made towards getting along with her, Zuko?" Mai asked him, raising her eyebrows "When you were kids, did you ask her to play with you? Or did she have to string you along for every game of hers she wanted you to join?"
"I think… the second one happened more often than the first" Zuko muttered, frowning.
"As you got older, did you ever approach her to, I don't know, compliment her on her firebending expertise, maybe? Did you ever ask her how did she bend blue fire, for instance?"
"I… no, I didn't do that" Zuko said, lips pursed.
"And when you came back home, did you ask her how she spent those last ten years?" Mai asked "Were you interested in what might have changed in her life?"
"I… I didn't. I found out later, though…"
"Indeed, you found out later" said Mai "Through other sources and not her. So… do tell me, when was the last time you showed any interest in your sister's life just because she's your sister?"
"Look, I get it, I've been an awful brother and I'm a terrible human being, but…!"
"Don't be so dramatic, that's not what I said" Mai stated "I didn't say you were a terrible human being, Zuko. But… you could use a lot of work, you know?"
"Yeah, I figure that's what everyone thinks" Zuko grumbled, and Mai sighed at his irritation "But the last years have been anything but easy on me, alright? It would be nice if people stopped acting like I've been having the time of my life when it's been anything but that! I was traveling through the world for ten years because my father didn't want me, my mother disappeared from my life when I was a kid, and I have a horrid scar all over my face simply because I spoke out of term in a meeting! Do you think I have no right to suffer over this because I've been an awful brother? Is this the price I have to pay for being as terrible to Azula as I've been?!"
"No, don't blow things out of proportion, Zuko" said Mai "That's not at all what I said. You have every right to suffer over your past, Zuko… anyone would agree on that. Your life really isn't ideal, nor is your situation, nor is anything about you. But are you going to hold on to that past forever, Zuko? Are you going to let your life pass you by while you sulk over everything that has made you miserable during the last few years? Granted, your experiences have shaped you… but you can't let those experiences become everything you are, Zuko. You can't waste away your life by being bitter over what happened ten years ago. Because that's what it would be, a waste. Letting your past weigh on you as you have has only brought you misery"
"You make it sound as it if were so easy to just move past it…"
"I know it's not easy, Zuko. But it has been ten years" muttered Mai "And it's about time you put your life together. Yes, you have a scar. Yes, your father banished you. Indeed, your mother is gone… and what can you do about any of those things at this point in time? You're back from banishment now. Your scar can't be removed, and who knows what fate befell your mother. Can you do anything about those things now, ten years afterwards?"
"I can't" said Zuko, sighing.
"Then you have to understand that it's time to move forward, Zuko" said Mai "You have a life to live. It will slip past you if you keep holding on to what could have been if your father liked you better than Azula, or if your mother hadn't left. You can't control most the events around you, Zuko… but you can control the way you respond to them. You can move forward if you will it, Zuko, and you can get over your misery if you give yourself a chance"
"I suppose…" said Zuko.
Mai sighed and looked at the garden while they fell quiet briefly. She was the one to interrupt the silence again, by returning towards what had brought across their conversation in the first place.
"Back to the main topic, though, and about your mother… wasn't Azula abandoned by the same mother who left you behind? Isn't that something that brought misery for her as well? Did you try to approach her when it happened?"
"W-well, I thought it would have upset her, yeah…" said Zuko, lowering his head "But she never wanted to talk about it. I went up to her a few times, asked her if she had discovered anything about our mother's disappearance and she'd ignore me, push me away, taunt me because I was a baby who needed his mom. I thought she didn't care. I figured… it didn't matter to her. If anything, she seemed happy that she was gone"
"I suppose…" said Mai, as Yuudai climbed off her lap and looked around himself with curiosity "But I also suppose you know Azula's relationship with your mother was far from ideal as well"
"I never really got it" said Zuko, frowning "They were always fighting, but I never got why that was…"
"For an array of reasons, surely. But no matter how much Azula pretended not to care, Zuko… truth is, she did" Mai said "And she can keep denying it nowadays, but she does care about her mother. Isn't that why she stormed away from the beach? Because she couldn't hear you talk about her?"
"Well, I… I don't know exactly" Zuko muttered "But maybe. How would you know about her feelings regarding our mother, though? Did she ever say anything about this to you?"
"Not about this…" Mai admitted "But about other things. About matters that you'd never imagine Azula would suffer over. Her façade of absolute perfection was only ever a façade, nothing more. If she were half as cold-hearted as she pretends to be, why would it have bothered her to be rejected by some witless boy who was intimidated by her? And saying it bothered her is an understatement…"
"I honestly have a hard time picturing that" said Zuko, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his fingers "Anyone rejecting Azula would…"
"Would have been granted a death penalty for it?" asked Mai "Anyone who rejects Azula will end up paying the ultimate price, you think? Do you believe your sister is a murderer?"
"I… guess not" said Zuko "She didn't kill that guy, did she?"
"No, she just ruined his life"
"Well, that's much better" said Zuko, eyes widening as he grimaced.
"Still… you do realize that Azula hasn't actually killed anyone in her life" said Mai, looking at Zuko "And I suppose not because she didn't quite want to, there have been some occasions when she's been rather upset at certain people…"
"But she resorted to other means to get rid of them?" said Zuko, sighing "I wonder what's worse, that she ruins their lives or that she'd kill them…"
"The life-ruining gives them a second chance, at the very least, to live a better life than the ones they had been leading thus far" said Mai "Chan and his father may have lost their reputation and credibility, but thanks to this, Chan has to work for things at last. Ruon told me it was about time he had to fend for himself…"
"So you're saying Azula did him a favor?" Zuko asked.
"Not a favor, but she taught him several good lessons nobody else ever had" said Mai "And all of it without taking the offensive. What she did was worthy of a military tactician, you could say…"
"Well, great for her…" said Zuko, sighing "What of it?"
"Azula has been playing people ever since she was a child, Zuko" said Mai "You could call it manipulation, maybe… but she has been doing that from a very young age. She's been misleading everyone, making them fear her because she could kill them if she wanted to. And… that much is true. Azula is fearsome, and far too powerful for her own good. But you see… it's the fact that she holds such power what makes her fearsome. And she knows it. Thus… she never uses it, not for real. People must always remain afraid of getting to her bad side, no matter if she'll never actually pull through with most her threats, because they haven't seen the worst of her and, for their sake, it's best that they don't…"
"So you're telling me Azula is more bark than bite?" Zuko asked, frowning.
"I'm telling you you've been scared of your younger sister your whole life" said Mai "And that fear has only increased as you both grew older because she knows just how to play with your head. But is Azula really half as terrible as you think she is?"
"I'm betting you'll say she's not" said Zuko.
"And you're not half as bad as she thinks you are either" Mai pointed out "It's not a matter of pointing fingers at each other, Zuko. It's actually a matter of acknowledging what's wrong and mending it. Isn't that what you came for?"
"I… I don't even know if that's what I came for, truth to be told" said Zuko, sighing.
"Well, you're here already, so we're not letting it go to waste, are we?" said Mai, looking at Yuudai, who had resorted to crawling around her "Your uncle isn't helping, that much is obvious or else you would have gone to him, am I right?"
"He's never really gotten along with Azula, I think…" said Zuko, a hand on his forehead "And on the other hand he gets along with me just fine. It was Sokka, though, who told me I was wrong about Azula… someone who hardly gets along with me and who seems to know her better than anyone else does. And the things he said, well… they had me wonder…"
"If there's more to Azula than you thought there was" muttered Mai "Or if perhaps she was just manipulating Sokka all over again. Is that what you were suspecting?"
"Well… I don't know. It's not impossible. He's pretty stupid and she's really smart" said Zuko, shrugging.
"People don't give his brains enough credit" said Mai "He has managed to go evenly at lots of things with Azula ever since we first found him in Hui Yi, and that's not something many people can claim they can do. Perhaps it's also because Azula has lowered her defenses around him, she feels confident when it comes to him… but that's because he has made it so. I do believe there's a high chance he's partial towards Azula, and that he may not have an unbiased view of everything that has happened in your relationship with your sister… but he does understand Azula better than most, I'm sure of that. So whatever it was he told you to defend her…"
"He told me she had feelings, that she was the most amazing person he knew" said Zuko "And that I was selfish and had no right to say she just cared about herself"
"Well… he is right about most of that" said Mai, at which Zuko frowned "Azula does have feelings, yet she doesn't show them. She reads people, Zuko, and if they're predictable enough she'll figure them out without even trying. It's why she knows how to turn every situation to her advantage, why she responds to your advances as she does. Why she's cold and cruel with you… and why she's not with him"
"Because he's not predictable?"
"I'm sure he isn't. But it's not only that" said Mai "It's the fact that he has overcome her expectations time over and time again, and he has proved she can't handle him as easily as she handles other people.
"And yet he has sacrificed his own well-being plenty of times for Azula's sake. How many people do you think have done this for her, Zuko? How many times has she found someone who will do everything in his power to save her life while they're stranded in a forest, with no signs of civilization for a week? And who knows how much longer it could have been if they hadn't found the dragon. Sokka has done all these things, and she never expected him to. She hasn't asked it of him. She hasn't intimidated him into doing anything for her… from what I know, when she tries to daunt him into doing something he often ends up doing the exact opposite just to spite her"
"But that just makes him a masochist, don't you think?" said Zuko, raising an eyebrow.
"True" said Mai, smiling "But it has made him irreplaceable for her. He's willing to defy her, and yet he's also willing to put his life in the line for her sake…"
"You're not going to join Ty Lee's party, are you?" Zuko asked, frowning "You don't think he's in love with her… and you don't think she's in love with him, do you?"
"What would be so wrong with that, I wonder?" Mai asked, at which Zuko was startled.
"I know, the social pressure, the problems they'd land themselves into if they were discovered together or so…" said Mai, nodding "It's why I don't expect either of them to ever act on their feelings. It's why I've even told Azula not to dare do it. But…"
"So you're saying… he's in love with her. You're really saying that" said Zuko, gulping.
"It could be" said Mai, shrugging "And what would be so bad about it, I ask again?"
"Well… it makes my respect for him grow, I'll say" muttered Zuko "It'll take some seriously unbelievable man to sweep my sister off her feet… and one even more unbelievable to fall for her in turn"
"And?" said Mai, raising her eyebrows "Isn't it proof that she can feel something, then?"
"I confess I said that without thinking, really" said Zuko, sighing "You're right, she just doesn't show her feelings, but she's got them. Still, if you're going to prove him right on everything he told me…"
"I have to ask, though… why did you think Azula had no feelings, Zuko?" Mai asked "What has led you to think so?"
"Other than the constant manipulation we just talked about?" asked Zuko, raising his eyebrows "Well… she's always out to get her way, no matter the obstacles. Whatever obstructs her, she gets rid of… isn't that the case?"
"You could say that means she's driven, then…" said Mai, folding her arms over her chest "Yet, as I pointed out, she doesn't quite take them out. You could say… she pushes the obstacles away. She doesn't destroy them. And why wouldn't she destroy them?"
"B-because it's unnecessary?" asked Zuko.
"Oh, but maybe it is necessary" said Mai, raising her eyebrows "Maybe killing Sokka back in the Pole would have been better for her. She could have sent a message to the Water Tribe if she had killed him and hung his dead corpse at the settlement"
"Then… what stayed her hand?" asked Zuko, frowning "Why wouldn't she…?"
"He gave her a reason to spare him" said Mai "And I don't know what it was… but considering what he's proved to be like, you could say that he began overcoming her expectations even back then. Something he did, something he said… it reached her. It told her it might be better to spare him, despite it all"
"So… he cracked his way into her heart of ice?" Zuko asked.
"It's less of a heart of ice than you think it is, I'm certain of it" said Mai "And she avoids making decisions with her feelings, of course she does… but she did it back then, I have no doubt about it. Nothing else could have convinced her to spare him. She couldn't have possibly known she would find a good use for Sokka so many years later"
"So her relationship with him is evidence that she has feelings, then…" said Zuko, sighing.
"And so do most people, Zuko" said Mai, looking at him sternly "Which… is why Sokka called you selfish"
"What?" said Zuko, frowning "Are you saying…?"
"Zuko… you've been through a lot, and it's true. You have a lot of misery to carry with you, and I'm not denying that. But you've spent ten years thinking about your misery… and how often do you give thought to other people's problems? Your uncle, for instance"
"My uncle?" asked Zuko, surprised.
"He's always been as kind to you as he possibly can. He chose to spend ten years with you at sea, disregarding his own interests, just to support you in these trying times. He was teaching you firebending too, wasn't he? And apparently he made your trip far easier on you and your crew than it would have been without him. How many times did you thank him for all this?"
"I…" Zuko blinked, looking at Mai in surprise.
"Well?" asked Mai, raising her eyebrows.
"I guess… I hardly ever did" muttered Zuko, lowering his head.
"What your uncle has done for you… it's worth the appreciation, don't you think?" said Mai "And yet, from what I know… you're still angry all the time. And considering he spends most his time with you, I suppose you're always angry around him. Is that fair, after everything he's done for you?"
"I… no, it's not" said Zuko, gritting his teeth.
"Your uncle has been through his own share of problems" said Mai "He lost his son, and became quite infamous after he failed to conquer Ba Sing Se. Perhaps people still respect him on some level, but behind his back, all they do is whisper about his failures. So you see… your uncle has tons of problems of his own. And so does Azula"
"What sort of problems does she have?" asked Zuko, frowning.
"You wouldn't imagine what sort of hardships she faces while trying to prove she's more than capable an heir for your father, would you? No matter what she does, everyone's always talking about you"
"S-she… wait, what?" said Zuko, surprised.
"Most the Fire Nation regards you as Fire Lord Ozai's true heir" said Mai "They think you're the first born, you're the son. Your destiny is to inherit his throne and crown… but for the longest time, you were banished. Your birthright was taken from you. And the responsibility should have fallen to Azula… but even though she was officially the Crown Princess during your absence, hardly anyone regarded her as such. Because she was a girl, and the second child… because everyone thought you'd come back one day, and they were ready to welcome you with honors and glory. So for ten years, Azula did her best to earn their recognition, for better or for worse. She's fearsome because that seems the most efficient way to make them realize she's out for real business, that she's not just filling in your shoes while you're gone…"
"But she is" said Zuko, looking at Mai "I mean… it's true. Tradition, logic… everything says that I'm our father's heir. Well, except for our father, I guess"
"And perhaps you are his heir again now" said Mai "But you weren't for ten years. If your father had died while you were at sea, Azula would be Fire Lord now. Or she would have tried to be, if the Fire Nation had allowed it. But they wouldn't have, most likely… because most people held on to the hope that you'd return triumphant to take your rightful place in the throne"
"So she went out of her way to get people to respect her as our father's heir…" said Zuko, frowning.
"And it has been no easy feat, Zuko" said Mai "It sounds simple, but it's really not"
"So… she's been through her own problems" acknowledged Zuko "And I should be more mindful about it, you think…"
"No, Zuko, it's not about what I think" said Mai, sighing "You've spent your whole life hoping that other people will provide you with guidance, that they will tell you which way to go… but it's not up to me to tell you what you should do, Zuko. You want advice? You can have it. You want your uncle's advice? He'll give it too. You could even ask for Azula's advice if you wanted it… but what you do is up to you and nobody else. You are the one who makes the decisions in your life, Zuko. Nobody can do it for you. So if you want to mind other people's problems, if you want to become considerate towards others, do it. But don't do it because I'm telling you to. Do it because you want to. Do you understand?"
A small hand fell on Zuko's leg, and he lowered his gaze to find it was Yuudai, who looked up at him with curiosity.
"I think I do…" he muttered "It's… it's what you did, isn't it? When you chose not to wait for me… when you chose Ruon Jian. When you chose Yuudai"
With that, he picked Yuudai up, and the boy laughed. Zuko swallowed hard and placed him on his lap, something that seemed to make the child quite happy.
"It is" said Mai, looking at Zuko "I didn't know if it was the right choice, Zuko… I didn't know if it was wrong. I didn't know if you'd come back one day, or if you never would. But I made a choice… a choice that I still stand by. A choice that was anything but easy… and a choice that required the advice of a great number of people"
"Your parents, I take it…" said Zuko "Ty Lee and Azula as well? And… what did they tell you?"
"My mother had no hopes anymore…" said Mai "She encouraged me to marry Ruon Jian. On the other hand, my father insisted that I should wait for you. Ty Lee told me to choose Ruon Jian too, actually. She told me it was pointless for me to sit around waiting for you when I didn't know if you'd come back, and that I deserved to make myself happy"
"Well, she didn't tell me that part…" said Zuko, sighing "And what did Azula say?"
"I didn't think you'd have to ask" said Mai, looking at Zuko "She told me to wait"
Zuko's eyes widened. Ty Lee had mentioned something about this… about Azula telling Mai not to give up on him, but he hadn't given it much thought until now.
"She said you'd probably return, and she was right" said Mai, nodding "You did. I don't really know, but I guess she always thought you and I would end up together. Maybe she wanted me to become her official sister or so, who knows? Or maybe she's a hopeless romantic and won't admit it…"
"Heh, well… any of those options are quite surprising coming from her" said Zuko, smiling "So she… tried to get you to wait. But you didn't"
"I made a choice, Zuko" said Mai, shaking her head "Whether it was good or not…"
"It was" Zuko said, startling her "I mean… surely you would have helped me become a better man if you had waited for me. But you are doing it right now and we're not together… and you have a kid with a man you love. So… what's the best situation, really? Did you ever think you'd be as happy with a family as you are now?"
"I didn't" said Mai, smiling a little "I never really expected it, truth to be told"
"Ty Lee was right, Mai" said Zuko "You should have chosen what made you happiest… and I think you chose right. I mean, look at me, I'm a mess. And… if you hadn't chosen Ruon Jian, you'd be picking up the pieces of my mess right now… and I probably wouldn't have even thanked you for it"
"Well, you really can't say…"
"No, Mai, you… you're right" he said, nodding "And Sokka was right. Maybe I didn't get it before, but I get it now. I think so, at least… but I guess I'm still confused"
"About what?" asked Mai, raising an eyebrow.
"Well… I was accused of being a horrible brother to Azula, but she doesn't make it any easier to be a good one, you know?" said Zuko, sighing "And it's not like she's been the greatest sister either…"
"I didn't say she had been, but you already heard what I told you" said Mai "She asked me to wait for you, despite it all… and she also gave you that ship you used throughout those ten years, didn't she?"
"Well, but she did it as an exchange, really" said Zuko "She was just hoping to make me pay her back in kind"
"And has she made you pay already?" Mai asked, raising her eyebrows.
"W-well… yeah" said Zuko, gulping "She had me sponsor her gladiator for one day… she used that debt I owed her to make me do it"
"You're not serious, are you?" asked Mai, looking at him in disbelief "That's how you returned her the favor? Really?"
"Y-yeah, well… why?"
"Zuko… without what she did, you wouldn't have even gotten off the Fire Nation while being banished" said Mai "What would have happened to you if she hadn't procured that ship for you?"
"I… I guess I would be homeless or dead by now" said Zuko, gulping.
"And yet that debt was paid by sponsoring her gladiator for one day, to avoid forfeit, I believe…" said Mai, as she put the mystery together in her head. This was what had happened back when Azula had been sick… "For giving you the means to travel and look for the Avatar, you repaid her by sponsoring Sokka in a fight that surely wasn't all that important anyways"
"I guess… she pardoned that debt too kindly, didn't she?" said Zuko, sighing "Well, I doubt I can return her the favor in kind, anyways. I don't have the means… and she doesn't have the need. So I guess…"
"So you guess she's not as bad as you took her for, despite all the things she's done to you" said Mai, and Zuko sighed in resignation.
"Maybe not. It's just… not easy to change my mind about her after all this time. But I'll try… I'll do my best to digest all this information. But still, what am I supposed to do? Just go up to her and say I want to fix our relationship? She'll laugh in my face. I doubt she'll want to change it… and for starters, why should I be the one trying to…?"
"For what you just realized, maybe?" Mai said, looking at him "Because she actually has helped you when you needed it, even if she expected you to repay her in kind? Don't you think it's up to you to take the first step now, considering everything you've just discovered about your sister?"
"Okay, okay…" said Zuko, gulping "Got it. I'll do it, but… how is this supposed to work, Mai? As I said…"
"You are right, you can't just tell her you want to fix things" said Mai, nodding "You have to show it to her. You have to prove to her that your relationship with her matters to you… that she matters to you. Show her that, despite your past history, and all the problems you've faced, despite the fact that your father has brought you both to compete irrationally over a chance to sit the throne, you still want to try being normal siblings, if possible"
"And what if she laughs?" Zuko said, grimacing.
"If she did, it wouldn't mean you should stop trying" said Mai "If anything, it would mean she can't believe it… so you'd have to prove her that you meant it when you said it. But even if you succeed, which I can't guarantee you will immediately unless you do something really amazing… don't expect it to mean that Azula will change radically and turn into some dream-like sister or so. She'll likely still make fun of you and…"
"And will tease me and tell me just how foolish I am whenever she has a chance" said Zuko, nodding "I guess that's a given. I can't picture her trying to be a dream-like sister, truth to be told. It'd spook me out"
"It'd spook everyone out, really" said Mai, smiling.
"But then what I have to do is… I have to accept her as she is, then" said Zuko, looking at Yuudai who was beginning to doze off on Zuko's lap "I don't need her to be anyone else… I just need to put the past behind me. To try and give us a new start, more or less. One where… where we can stop trying to outdo each other. You're right to say it's stupid… it is. All along I was trying to beat her at everything, and I ended up losing sight of who I was because of that. All I did was stare after her and try to surpass Azula… and to what avail? I probably never will, and I'll probably spend the rest of my life feeling miserable if I keep trying to attain some impossible ideal. It's stupid… it really is"
"You said Ty Lee was right to tell me to be happy" said Mai, looking at Zuko gently "Then the same goes for you. Be happy, Zuko. I don't know how, and I don't need to know either, just… find a way to live a life you can be proud of. A life where you won't have to feel like a failure just because you didn't earn someone's acceptance, no matter who that someone is. Your happiness needs nobody's validation but your own. So just… be happy by doing what you must do to be at peace with yourself, Zuko. That's the advice you'll have from me. Heed by it, or don't… it's your choice. Remember that too"
"I will" he said, smiling at Mai "I will. Thanks, Mai"
"Any time" said Mai, smiling back as Zuko breathed deeply.
"I guess I really needed to talk with you. You don't sugarcoat things, and what you told me was really helpful. So… see? You could give me clarity, I told you so"
"Well, I'm glad I could" said Mai "You both deserve happiness, Zuko. You and Azula. And it doesn't have to be at the expense of one another. So give your relationship with your sister a chance… it might not be as hard to mend it as you think it is"
"But… it might not be as easy either" said Zuko, gulping "I'll have to give it some thought. I guess there's got to be something I can do for her… but you really think this can work? Do you think she'll want to make things different? Isn't it more convenient for her to keep our relationship as it is?"
"Indeed, refusing to let your relationship change would keep you from prying into her business and making sure that she does have feelings…" said Mai, nodding "And she probably won't take it so well when your approaches towards her become different. She's bound to think you're trying to play her… she's bound to take your kindness as some sort of trick or trap. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try regardless. You can't give up without a fight"
"I… can't" said Zuko, blinking. That phrase was quite familiar… "And I won't. I don't know if this is all I need to be at peace with myself, but it should be a start"
"I really hope it will be" said Mai "As I said… you both deserve a better relationship than the one you've had so far. I've known you both for too long, and I care too much about you two to keep watching how you try to destroy each other pointlessly. So, please, do your best, Zuko. And get her to do her best as well. You both owe it to yourselves, first and foremost"
"Right" he said, nodding "I will, Mai"
"In the mean time… you don't happen to need a job as a baby-sitter, do you? It seems that Yuudai likes you quite a lot"
Zuko chuckled and smiled. It was a curious sensation to have the boy sleeping on his lap like this. Yuudai's existence, even while in the womb, often made him think bitterly to himself that he should have been this child's father. But for some reason, that thought hadn't crossed his mind today, not even once. Perhaps he was embracing his reality now… maybe he was already letting the past go, as Mai had told him to. It had been ten years, and coming back to find so many changes after such a long time had been quite troublesome. Still… it was time to move on for real. He couldn't keep using people like Kyoshi's Heir as scapegoats from reality, and he couldn't expect others to lead him through the path he would choose in life… because Mai was right. He made his own choices, and that was what he meant to do, from now on. In order to live a life he could be proud of, in order to have his own child sleeping on his lap one day, he needed to close the door to the past and face his future head-on…
Zuko returned to the Royal Palace not long after, and when he arrived to the entrance he found Azula was flying overhead on the back of her dragon. He had envied her so when she had found it… but Mai had been right to say Azula had been facing terrible hardships before finding him. She could have even died if she hadn't happened upon Xin Long.
Maybe he'd try to find dragons himself one day, to see if maybe one would accept his offering of fire like Azula's had taken hers. But for now… for now he could stop begrudging what Azula had. For now he would do his best to accept his sister as she was, no matter if she was better or worse than him. She was his sister, and that was all there should be to it. That was all there should have ever been, even though his father had tried to make it otherwise.
Surely it wouldn't be easy to change things between the two of them… but he was determined to try anyways.
"Oh… Oh, Zuko!"
Zuko was startled to hear the voice of his uncle behind him. Iroh ran up to him and smiled brightly, a package in his hands.
"I'm glad you were right here, it saved me the time of looking for you in the Palace. I had found this some time ago, my nephew… I had forgotten which teashop sold it, but I finally remembered!" he said, proudly "This… uh, is everything alright?"
"Yes, Uncle" said Zuko, nodding "Everything's good. What do you have there?"
"Well, you see, I had some of this tea once before" said Iroh, opening the package to reveal green herbs within it "And after what you told me the other day, I thought maybe it would cheer you up. It's a special blend of tea, Zuko, from Kyoshi Island"
Zuko's eyes widened. Well… that was surprising. He didn't really think it was a good idea to have tea that would remind him of the girl who had vanished without a trace… a girl who might have run away from him because he had struck her as odd, a girl who might not want anything to do with him anymore.
But for some reason, thinking about Suki wasn't so bothersome anymore. He was still worried about Kyoshi's Heir's fate, of course he was, and he wished to know what had happened to her… but it wasn't right to brood over this matter as he had. Something must have happened to Suki, and whether it was good or bad he didn't know… though he hoped it would be good. She deserved good things happening in her life. If they ever were to cross paths again, he'd make sure to be less doubtful, less nervous, and far more helpful than he was the one time they had talked before. But in the mean time, there were a lot of aspects in his life that could use some work… and he could start working on one of those aspects right now.
It wasn't too wise of Iroh to bring him the tea that would remind Zuko of the girl he had been pining after to no avail… for all he knew, his would only make Zuko miserable. And yet Zuko saw the happy smile on his uncle's face. He knew Iroh had meant well by what he had done. It wasn't too smart a move… but he had done it with Zuko in mind. He had wanted to cheer him up. And the very least he could do was to appreciate that.
"Kyoshi Island, Uncle? Really?" he asked, looking at the tea blend with interest "Is it good?"
"It was when I first had it" said Iroh, pleasantly surprised by Zuko's response. Why did he look different, though…? There was something about his nephew that wasn't quite the same as it had been when he had seen him last… "Would you like to try it?"
"Sure" said Zuko, smiling "Thanks, Uncle"
"Oh…" Iroh blinked a few times and smiled back "Well, you're welcome, Zuko. Anytime you want tea, you are more than welcome to come to me"
"I'm not just talking about the tea…" said Zuko, with a weak laugh "Thanks for everything"
Iroh's eyes widened and he poked Zuko with a finger, at which the Prince jumped.
"W-what are you…?"
"Well, what's gotten into you, Prince Zuko?" he asked "Is there something else you want to tell me now?"
"It's nothing, really" said Zuko, smiling "So… how was your day, Uncle?"
"Huh? You never ask me about my day…" Iroh said, blinking blankly as Zuko chuckled and ushered Iroh inside the Palace.
"Well, it's as good a day as any to start asking, don't you think?" he said, patting Iroh's back.
Iroh was puzzled, beyond puzzled… but Zuko was pleased. Being grateful towards his uncle simply felt right. For some reason it made him feel lighter, as though he had finally found something he had never known he needed. And maybe he had… maybe he finally understood what he wanted to do in life. Or at least, he understood what he wanted to do with his life right now. And that alone made him feel brand new, like a different man than the one who had headed off to visit Mai earlier.
And the different man helped Iroh inside, listening intently to what his Uncle had to say about his hectic day looking through teashops in the Capital City. It was the same as many conversations they usually had… but it was better than ever before. Maybe because this time Zuko actually wanted to hear what Iroh had to say. Maybe because this time he wanted to spend time with his Uncle just as much as Iroh wanted to spend time with him.
Mai mustn't have known it, Zuko thought… but by not choosing him, by picking Ruon Jian instead, she had given him the very chance nobody else ever had, the chance he had needed someone to give him: she had allowed him to be himself for once, with no strings attached, for nobody's sake but his own. And thanks to that, for the first time in over ten years, Zuko actually felt happy.