A/N: I know, I know, what am I doing in Avatar fanfic? So far out of my comfort zone? When I should be working on other things? This was a holiday present for a friend, who was lamenting the lack of Maiko support (and the cruelty that was The Promise). The story was going to languish on my hard drive forever, but then said friend convinced me to post it as a way to give back to the Maiko community, so here it is! I hope it does you all justice.Spoiler alert: This follows the comics (namely, The Promise, The Search, and Rebound). Hopefully no one's too OOC, although I did stick to Rebound's portrayal of Tom-Tom and his speaking abilities. Maybe he's just a really precocious kid. Who knows?Disclaimer: I own nothing here except the hope that Zuko comes to his senses. I just re-watched "Day of Black Sun", though, so that hope is dwindling. Sigh.
Zuko ran a hand through his hair, completely exhausted. He'd spent the past few grueling days traveling on bison-back and the past few grueling nights sleeping on piles of dirt. And sure, he'd once spent his fair share of nights sleeping on piles of dirt, but that had been years ago. Now, he would leave the asceticism to the Air Nomads. The one perk to being an overworked Fire Lord: when you got to sleep, you got to sleep in a real, live, soft bed.
Despite his exhaustion, he couldn't help the smile that tugged at his lips as he passed the turtleduck pond. How many times had he sat there, wondering what had happened to his mother? Imagining her holding him close, feeding the turtleducklings and scolding Azula? No one scolded Azula after their mother left. Not more than once, anyway.
Thinking of his sister—and her whereabouts—threatened to bring back Zuko's usual scowl, so he deliberately turned his thoughts back to the task at hand. He was home, and no matter how tired he was, he knew he had responsibilities. His friends had all scattered as soon as Appa touched the ground (or, in Aang's case, before Appa touched the ground), but Zuko knew he had to find Uncle and resume his place as Fire Lord. It was only right.
Although finding Uncle wouldn't be necessary if he had met us in the courtyard like he'd said he would, thought Zuko grouchily.
After searching the library, Iroh's room, the study, and of course the kitchen, Zuko finally gave in and asked a passing servant where his uncle was.
"A most urgent audience concerning treason," the servant said, bowing so low his nose scraped the floor. "In the throne room."
Zuko thanked him, forgoing the usual lecture about not bowing for every little question in favor of rushing to the throne room. An urgent audience sounded, well, urgent.
He would have burst through the double doors without hesitation if not for the little black-haired boy just in front of them, lying on his stomach with his feet swinging up in the air.
Zuko pulled up short, barely missing the kid.
"Uh, hello," he said awkwardly. He'd never been good with kids. "Are you...what are you doing?"
"Painting," said the boy without looking up. "For my sister. To cheer her up. She's sad."
"Oh. Um, that's nice. Not that she's sad, I mean, it's nice that you're painting for her so she won't be sad, because being sad is...you know...sad." Zuko looked around, desperately trying to locate the boy's caretaker. "Shouldn't there be someone watching you?"
"Yes, but she got busy," the kid explained. "A bison is visiting."
He kept painting, unconcerned, but Zuko was at a loss. He wanted to join the meeting with his uncle, but he couldn't just leave a little kid unsupervised.
No. Zuko sighed. This was just until someone showed up to take the kid off his hands, he promised himself. Where were the bowing servants when you needed them?
"Mind if I join you?" he asked, gesturing to a spot next to the paints.
The boy shrugged.
Figuring that was all the answer he needed, Zuko plopped down and watched the boy paint. After studying the parchment for a minute, though, Zuko gave up. "What is that supposed to be?"
At last the boy looked over at him, and Zuko felt a sliver of recognition. He knew the kid from somewhere, he was sure of it. It'd been awhile ago, when the boy was younger. Maybe a servant's son?
"It's a house," the boy said in a tone of voice that clearly indicated he didn't think much of Zuko's artistic abilities.
"Oh. Yeah. I see it now," Zuko lied. "In this light, it just looked more like a...box."
"It's a square house," said the boy. His tone hadn't changed.
"Yeah, I got that. With, uh, people in it. Right?" Zuko asked, pointing at the four sticks inside the box. He congratulated himself on getting the hang of this. "Your mom and dad and you and your sister?" Which he only guessed because two of the sticks had shorter diagonal sticks on top, which probably signified women's hair.
The boy nodded. "Yup. Us. After Daddy's done being crazy."
Zuko choked. "What?"
"My sister says Daddy's a little crazy right now. We can't see him until he stops being crazy."
Zuko didn't know what to say to that, but luckily the kid barreled on. "How'd your face get like that?"
"My dad went a little crazy," said Zuko dryly, taking a moment to appreciate how mortified the boy's parents would be if they could hear their son right now.
"Oh." The kid studied Zuko's face. "It makes you look like the man from the picture."
"The one that made my sister sad. Does your face make people sad?"
"Uh, I don't think so. Not usually." Something tried to spark in the back of Zuko's brain. How many people in the world could possibly look like he did? And why would that make someone sad? Angry, yeah. He got that. Plenty of people resented what he was trying to do for the Fire Nation. But sad? He didn't get that. Maybe the boy meant his sister was sad because she felt sympathetic about what Ozai had done...?
Before Zuko's tired brain could figure it out, Sokka turned a corner ahead, and Zuko jumped at the opportunity to pass on babysitting duty.
The Water Tribe warrior made his way down the hall, a hunk of pig chicken halfway out his mouth. "Hey, Zuko, you find your uncle?"
Zuko opened his mouth to explain, but the boy cut him off. "Your name is Zuko?"
"Like the Fire Lord?"
"A lot like the Fire Lord," said Sokka, chuckling. "You know Fire Lord Zuko, kid?"
The boy nodded enthusiastically and recited, "Zuko is good. Ozai is bad. We like Zuko, so we shouldn't kill him, no matter what Daddy says."
"Uh, that's a good rule," said Sokka, clearly taken aback. "Killing Zuko would be bad. These days, anyway."
He peered more closely at the kid. "Don't I know you from somewhere? Hey, yeah! Fire Nation baby!"
"What gave it away, the Fire Nation emblem on his shirt?" asked Zuko flatly.
"No," said Sokka, picking up the boy and tossing him in the air. "You're the kid from Omashu! The one we kidnapped!"
The boy squealed with laughter as Sokka threw him up in the air.
"A Fire Nation boy in Omashu," murmured Zuko. "I should know this..."
"Do you remember me? Your old pal Sokka?" Sokka paused. "On second thought, don't remember me. You were in a lot of danger most of the time you knew me. Instead I'll be your new, improved pal Sokka, okay buddy?"
Sokka placed the boy carefully back on the floor, where the kid immediately reached for the club hanging on Sokka's belt.
"I see we haven't changed much," Sokka commented, cautiously maneuvering the kid out of club's reach. "You're lucky you haven't cut yourself open with that sister of yours around."
Zuko frowned. "Wait, you know his sister?"
Sokka laughed. "Right, like I'm going to forget her anytime soon."
"No, that isn't—" Zuko began, but the boy cut him off, eying Sokka curiously.
"You know Mai?" he asked innocently.
Zuko choked again. Of course. The boy was Tom-Tom. Older than Zuko remembered him, certainly, but that wasn't surprising given how long it had been...
"Sure do, buddy," said Sokka, ruffling a tuft of Tom-Tom's hair. "She's pretty impressive, your sister."
Tom-Tom grinned. "She likes knives."
"Yes. Yes, she does." Sokka glanced over at Zuko. "Hey, you okay? You look a little pale."
"Fine," Zuko muttered. Tom-Tom was here, and he'd said he'd seen his sister this morning. This was not good.
"Are you sure? Your hands are on fire," Sokka noted. He tugged Tom-Tom behind him.
"I'm fine," Zuko snapped, extinguishing the flames. "I just have lots of things to do. Urgent things. Earth Kingdom things. In the Earth Kingdom. Urgently."
"Ohhh," said Sokka, starting to catch on. He winked. "I'd be afraid to see her too."
"I'm not afraid!" Zuko roared. Flames leapt from his palms, luckily faced toward the ceiling.
"Fear can often be a positive thing," said the calm voice of Uncle Iroh behind him. "As I have tried many times before to teach you, nephew."
Zuko whirled. The double doors now stood open, his uncle standing just inside. And with Uncle, Mai.
Zuko's one comfort was that Mai looked just as surprised to see Zuko as Zuko was to see her, if such a thing were possible. He could tell because her eyes had widened by the barest fraction.
"You are back early, nephew!" said Iroh cheerfully. "How fortuitous!"
"You knew when I was coming," Zuko growled. "I sent a scroll."
Iroh's brow furrowed. "I must not have received it."
"You sent one back."
"And my good friend Sokka!" Uncle boomed, drowning Zuko out. "I trust your journey was fruitful?"
"I sent a scroll!" Zuko shouted.
"We really must work on that temper of yours," Iroh said reproachfully. "There is a lady present."
"Who?" asked Sokka, looking around.
Mai glared at him and not-so-subtly slid her hands into her sleeves.
"Hi, Mai!" said Tom-Tom, running up to her with arms outstretched. Zuko expected her to step away, especially since the boy's hands were covered in paint, but to his surprise she knelt down and embraced him. "I made friends!"
"I see," Mai drawled, her voice betraying nothing.
"This is Sokka," Tom-Tom continued, apparently forgetting Sokka and his sister already knew one another, "and this is Zuko, like the Fire Lord."
"Tom-Tom, this is the Fire Lord," Mai told him, setting him on his feet. "I showed you a picture of him, remember? We talked about this. What do we do when we see Fire Lord Zuko?"
Tom-Tom gasped. "You're Fire Lord Zuko?"
"Not at the moment," Zuko said uncomfortably.
Mai sighed and motioned toward the floor. "Tom-Tom..."
"Oh, right!" Tom-Tom bent over at the waist and whispered, "Sorry, Zuko. I forgot."
Mai cleared her throat.
"I mean, Fire Lord Zuko. Sorry again, Zuko."
"You don't need to bow," said Zuko, scowling. He turned to Mai, who had also leaned forward in deference and was probably about to scold her brother again for forgetting his title. "You don't need to bow either." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sokka start bobbing at the waist like a broken toy. "No one needs to bow!"
"Tom-Tom does," said Mai firmly. "It's important he learn to respect you—"
Zuko scoffed. "That's stupid. You never had to bow to me!"
"I did once," she said, her voice even.
She still hadn't straightened, so Zuko couldn't look her in the eye; he'd always counted on that to tell him what Mai was feeling. But her meaning was obvious enough: she had bowed just before she had left him, when she had accused him of loving his secrets more than he loved her.
He stared at her for what felt like forever, and he probably would have kept staring if Tom-Tom hadn't started to fidget.
"How long do we have to bow, Mai?" he asked.
"You can get up, Tom-Tom," Zuko said, sighing. "Everyone should get up."
Mai nodded in acknowledgment then turned to Iroh. "Thank you for your hospitality, but—"
"No, no," said Uncle, clearly distressed. "You must stay! Surely you can see it is not safe for you now."
Zuko raised his eyebrow at Mai—when had anything ever been unsafe for Mai?—but again, she wouldn't meet his gaze. Instead she lifted her head proudly and took Tom-Tom's hand.
"He won't hurt us."
He? Sokka mouthed to Zuko. Zuko shrugged, equally confused.
Iroh frowned. "Hurt, perhaps not. But capture..."
"He can try," said Mai, more darkly than Zuko was really comfortable with.
"It won't do," Iroh declared. "If not for your sake, then consider your brother's. No, you will stay here for now, as you already agreed."
Mai's eyes flicked to Zuko. "With respect, when I made that promise, a certain interim Fire Lord had led me to believe he was currently ruling alone."
"I am old and forgetful," said Iroh with a shrug. "Perhaps if my nephew had thought to send a scroll..."
Zuko's scowl intensified, but before he could say anything, Sokka jumped in and offered his hand to Tom-Tom.
"What do you say we go find ourselves some dinner while these three argue?" he suggested. "It could be all night before one of them gives in, and I'm already hungry again. Maybe by the time we get back, they will have noticed there's a kid's safety on the line, and now is not the time for petty squabbling. I mean, I love petty squabbling as much as the next guy. I am the petty squabbling guy. But my petty squabbling always has a point—"
"Then by definition it's not petty," Mai interjected lazily.
"—and I'm not willing to risk death by starvation on the off-chance these guys get their acts together. So I say let's leave them to their petty squabbling, and when they decide to stop being completely ridiculous, they can come join us for some fire flakes."
Tom-Tom didn't seem to understand most of Sokka's speech, but at "fire flakes," his face lit up. He was obviously aware going with his new friend meant snacks. He happily took Sokka's hand.
"Here," said Tom-Tom, handing Mai his picture. "It's for you."
"Uh, thanks," said Mai. She took the still-wet picture gingerly. "It's...nice."
Tom-Tom beamed. He waved and followed Sokka down the hall, chattering brightly.
After they'd left, Zuko, Iroh, and Mai stood in the doorway, saying nothing. Mai stared at the painting in her hand, unblinking, but Iroh kept catching Zuko's eye and gesturing subtly in Mai's direction.
Finally Zuko decided they were being a little ridiculous, and if Mai were in some sort of trouble, the least he could do was help. After all, she had kind of saved his life once. More recently she'd ripped out his heart and then stomped on it, but he'd done that to her too, and she'd still saved his life. He probably owed her some help.
"It's a house. With your family," he explained, pointing at the painting. For some reason, this made Uncle shake his head and roll his eyes skyward.
"I figured," Mai replied without looking up. "It's a theme lately."
"It's supposed to be after your dad finishes going crazy," Zuko continued, still intent on being helpful.
His uncle began muttering something about Angi and granting him patience.
"I can't wait until that day finally arrives, and we can all live happily ever after in our box," Mai said dryly.
"It's a square house."
"Well. That changes everything."
More awkward silence. Uncle had seemingly given up completely. He'd dropped his head into his hands, still muttering.
"If you don't catch them, Sokka will probably feed your brother seal jerky," Zuko tried again. Mai didn't react. Why was she not appreciating how incredibly helpful he was being here? "Or stewed sea prunes. He taught the royal cooks how to make them the last time he was here."
"My father would be livid if he heard of his son eating Water Tribe peasant food," mused Mai, considering, "but I suppose it would be heartless to use my brother that way. Using him as bait to trap the Avatar, sure. But sea prunes? I'm not a monster."
Iroh's head rose cautiously, like he'd finally spotted a glimmer of hope but didn't want to get too excited about it. He needn't have worried; Zuko had finally placed why Sokka's Omashu Fire Nation baby story had sounded so familiar, and in any case the bitterness in Mai's voice would have been hard to miss. Well, for Zuko, anyway. Once upon a time.
"You're not a monster," he said softly. Uncle began inching away. "How many times have I told you to stop beating yourself up over that? There wasn't anything you could have done. My sister doesn't believe in giving people real choices."
"Whatever," Mai huffed, though Zuko thought he saw her expression soften ever so slightly.
"And my uncle was right," he added impulsively, watching the tail end of a robe whip around a distant corner, "even if he's suddenly nowhere to be seen."
Mai truly looked at him for the first time, curious. "Right about what?"
"You should stay here. You—and Tom-Tom—will be safe here, from whatever it is you're hiding from. I can promise you that much." Zuko hesitated. "And, if you want...the palace is huge. I can make sure our paths never cross."
She regarded him for several seconds, and Zuko fought the urge to squirm.
At last, she spoke. "You're such a dork."
Zuko felt his jaw hit the floor, and Mai swept past him.
"What'd I do now?" he complained, frustrated. He hurried to catch up to her. "Is there any way to win with you? I was trying to be considerate! Isn't that what you wanted?"
The corners of her mouth lifted in the barest hint of a smile. "Sure. You're just bad at it."
"Fine!" Zuko yelled without thinking. "I won't even try, then! You, me, breakfast at the turtleduck pond tomorrow morning. How's that for considerate!"
He was afraid he'd gone too far when Mai didn't immediately reply. He expected her to yell at him, or feign indifference at him, or (most likely) fling knives at him. What he didn't expect was her asking casually, "Will there be fruit tarts?"
Zuko blinked a couple times. Then he began grinning like an idiot.
"An entire table of them," he promised. "And all the rose petals you could want. No, I'll bring whole rosebushes, so you can get in some target practice before we eat."
"I guess I could make time. Breakfast is the most dreadfully boring meal of the day. Besides, what kind of example would I set for Tom-Tom if I ignored a direct order from the Fire Lord?"
Zuko groaned loudly. "It's not an order! It's—"
"Relax, Zuko, I know." Mai rolled her eyes. "Shouldn't the Avatar have taught you a sense of humor by now?"
"I have a sense of humor! I know this one joke, about a man and an ostrich-horse—"
"But no," she continued over him, "I suppose some things are beyond even the Avatar's power. He's only mostly human, after all."
Mai moved ahead of him, leaving Zuko dumbfounded in the corridor. His brain caught up a couple seconds later, but by then, Mai was out of sight.
"Was that a yes or a no?" Zuko called. "Mai? Mai! I swear I'll make them paint your entire room orange if you don't answer me. Mai! Stop! Well at least don't let Sokka eat all the fire flakes! MAI!"