Characters: Mai and Zuko, assorted ensemble and an OC.
Pairing: Mai/Zuko, some hints of Toph/The Duke, Aang/Katara and Suki/Sokka
Warnings: Takes place after my first bigbang fic, At the Edge of Dusk, but you don't have to read it to enjoy this one. It occurs roughly two years post-series and does contain heavy spoilers for the entire series.
"Of course I'll be good."
Zuko crossed his arms over his chest. "Our version of good, not yours," he added.
Toph rolled her eyes. "I'll be your version of good – the wussy, whiny kind of good. Okay? Is that good enough for you, Fuss Lord?"
"I'm sure you will, but just in case," Mai said calmly, "I'll make sure my uncle comes by once and a while to see how things are."
Toph scowled. "Oh, come on! You know that I've changed. I don't throw rocks without thinking about it anymore!"
"Much," Zuko added weakly.
"That's still better than I was!"
Mai and Zuko looked at each other discreetly. They knew that they were taking a risk, leaving Toph behind to watch over things while they were gone. However, she was the only one available at that precise moment, and it wouldn't hurt to have her close to the source of the dissension – especially since she could help dispel some of it with her first-hand experience. Iroh seemed to hold great faith in her abilities to keep the peace, which was also a good reason to take a risk on her. Still, as always, choosing her was something of a risk, especially since she still had a temper when it came to all matters of the court.
"In that case," Zuko added, "you probably won't mind if I ask my archivist to send me updates as needed, then?"
Toph opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. Clearly even she knew that if she did protest, it would mean that she had no plans on keeping her temper in check. "Of course not," she grumbled. "Do whatever you want."
The thing was, both Mai and Zuko knew that she had wanted to do more than just hang around the Earth Kingdom in order to do her part. She had made it clear that she especially wanted something to do in the Fire Nation when it eventually became her main place to haunt. This would be the first time either of them would trust her with something like this, and all three of them wanted her to do a good job – for herself and for them.
"And how many weeks would that be, Firelord?" Toph added, her voice cold.
Mai raised an eyebrow and Zuko rolled his eyes. "Stop being a brat," Mai advised lightly, making the other girl blush. "It should mean something to you, that we trust you above anyone else."
"Or it could just mean that you couldn't find anyone else."
"Not true. There's Suki, Haru, Sokka, maybe even Katara and Aang, Ty Lee..."
Toph made a face. "Okay, fine. Whatever. How long?"
"We ... don't know yet," Zuko admitted. "But once we do, you'll be the first to know, okay?"
"We're trusting you, Toph," Mai added. "And we hardly trust anyone."
This seemed to hit the point home. "Yeah," she agreed, her shoulders finally relaxing. "Okay."
They decided to take one of the war balloons; they wanted to go alone, and they wanted to get there at a good time, but not in a way that would alert anyone. The ruins themselves weren't too far from the capitol - probably about an hour or two by balloon.
"So," Mai said, breaking a small silence. The thing about the two of them was that they didn't need to talk, but sometimes it was best to get things out in the open. "What do you think this is all about, anyway?"
"Well, you heard Uncle," Zuko said, keeping his eyes on the fire level of the furnace. "They said something about finally coming out in the open."
"Yeah, but how? What did they mean?"
"I'm not sure..." he answered slowly, his eyes finally leaving the flames to look in her eyes. It was there that she saw the barely-restrained excitement, the curiosity and the wonder. It made her smile.
"Don't give me that," she said with a chuckle. "Fine, then. What do you think it means?"
Zuko smiled, his eyes sparking. She wondered why he bothered keeping it all bottled in for this long in the first place.
"I really kind of hope it has something to do with dragons," he admitted finally, his voice wavering. "Ever since I saw them – saw them for real – I've wondered. I've thought about them. I mean, think about it – there are still living dragons! This could mean so much for us as a nation!"
Mai thought about it for a moment. It did seem rather wonderful. She had always doubted the legends about the dragons, although both her uncle and her father swore to her that the tales were true. Still, it was hard to believe in something you had never seen.
But then, she thought to herself wryly, that's exactly what I thought when I heard about the Avatar.
"But why would they risk it?" she found herself wondering out loud. "Why would they risk exposing the dragons to the world again? Especially with what happened last time?"
Zuko grimaced. "Yeah. There's that," he agreed hesitantly.
"Well..." she added, hoping to cheer him up. "Either way, I'm pretty sure this trip won't be wasted. Don't you think that that's at least true?"
He nodded, but his eyes were back on the flames, his face pensive. She fell into silence as well, leaving him to his deep thoughts while thinking her own.
The journey into the ruins was, as a whole, uneventful. Once they had landed the balloon in a discreet place a distance away from the main pyramid, they spent their time keeping their eyes peeled and their feet quick when it came to traps hidden away. A few times, they did happen to booby into a few of those traps, but not without a brief laugh from the spectator and a blush from the person trapped. Once they made it onto safer ground, their searching resumed.
They walked over the bridge that lead to the main pyramid, where Zuko remembered finding the Dancing Dragon form with Aang. By then, the sun was slowly cresting overhead, its heat intense but also oddly comforting, given their whereabouts.
"It's really kind of nice here," Mai said softly, reaching over and taking Zuko's hand in hers. "Kind of quiet and peaceful."
Her eyes fell on a ruined statue of a pair of dragons, and her words died on her lips. Zuko looked at them blankly, his memory supplying the moment that he had last seen that ruined rock face. They stopped in front of it, hands intertwined, in silence.
Then Zuko said, "I really don't understand why Sozin turned against the dragons." Mai looked up at him and saw that his face was both confused and in grief. "I mean, I know what he said, and I know what he claimed were his reasons, but he himself rode a dragon, seemed to be friends with that dragon. Why would he turn against them like that?"
"I don't know," Mai admitted softly, her eyes still on his face.
"Both he and Roku had dragons. They were honoured mounts. So why would Sozin suddenly turn against them, put a price on their heads, make them into a game for more power? Why would he betray them like that?"
The pain in Zuko's voice hurt Mai a little. His clear confusion and his own upset from his great-grandfather's transgressions really seemed to cut him to the quick. She knew that nothing she said would make a difference, so instead, she merely squeezed his hand.
"No wonder they hate us," he concluded sadly, biting his lip hard.
"Maybe this is your chance," Mai said, her voice still soft. He looked over at her, looking sad. She smiled faintly. "Maybe this is your chance to make things right."
"You have no idea how much I hope for that, Mai," he said.
"Oh, I think I do," she replied, reaching up and touching his scarred cheek with her other hand. "I think I do."
The rest of the walk was in silence, one that was broken when Zuko looked up and said, "Hey, this is it!" and ran up the rest of the way, sounding excited. Mai blinked slowly and followed, watching her husband look up at a huge carved doorway with a smile on his face, his eyes fixed on a round, red jewel at the very top of a lone pillar. At his feet, sprawled out on the stone below, was a circular painting of what looked to be a primitive calendar.
Mai joined him just as he reached back and pulled out one of his broadswords. "Planning on cutting it into submission?" she wondered dryly.
He grinned at her, his eyes flashing with mirth. "Nope. Just a little trick I learned to fool the calendar." He hunched down and positioned the flat of the blade in the beam of sunlight. The blade flashed, and Zuko angled it so that the light that was caught fell over the twin jewel above the doors. There was a long pause, one that Zuko spent with his breath held.
Just when Mai was about to say something caustic, the doors lurched open slowly. She swallowed her comment as Zuko leapt to his feet, sheathing his sword and grinning over at her proudly. She laughed, unable to keep it in, and he grabbed her hand and pulled her into the gloom.
It took a moment for their eyes to adjust, but once they did, the statues slowly came into view. "Charming," Mai said lightly, narrowing her eyes at a particularly sinister-looking one. "And this is helpful, how?"
Zuko let go of her hand, putting it to the back of his head in thought. "Well, the last time, Aang and I did the Dancing Dragon ... and then got stuck in here, in some kind of tar or glue or something. But that was only when – er – one of us touched the golden egg."
"Golden egg?" Mai blinked.
Zuko blushed, but nodded. "Yeah. When we danced, a pedestal came up from the ground. It had a golden egg on it."
Mai's eyes widened. "Do you think that maybe it was real?"
"A real egg?" Zuko blinked back at her, his hand pausing on his head. "It looked like it was just a gem, but..." His eyes went a little unfocussed. "But it was warm. I remember. It was heavy and warm."
Mai's eyes glinted, the way they did when her mind had landed on something. "No wonder you were caught," she said softly, a catlike smile gracing her lips. "If it was a real egg, touching it was probably a huge problem."
Zuko lowered his hand, staring at the spot where the pedestal had emerged last time. Mai followed his gaze. "I wonder if we could see it again," he said finally.
"Don't we have better things to do?" she answered a trace sharply. "We really should find a way to get to the village proper, you know. I don't mind being taken on a nostalgia trip with you, but eventually we do have to get down to the reason why we're here."
He looked at her, his face practically glowing. "Mai, do the Dancing Dragon with me!"
Mai stared at him, fighting the urge to laugh in his face – or maybe throw something sharp at him. "You're insane."
"I'm serious! It's how the egg came up last time!"
"I'm not a firebender, and I'm most certainly not a dancer. You're on your own."
"I've seen you dance! You're a great dancer!"
Mai blushed fiercely. "I am not, shut your mouth, and I'm not helping you."
Zuko then proceeded to do something she both loved and loathed – loved, because it was adorable, and loathed, because it worked every single time. He stared at her with a pout, his eyes going wide. She groaned, trying to cover his face with her hands, but the damage was done.
"If I do this, you owe me," Mai declared.
Zuko pulled her hands away, his expression akin to Tom-Tom's when she gave him a sweet he liked. "Sure! Whatever you say!" he said easily. When she grinned, her diabolical grin, however, he found himself almost choking on his tongue; that look never boded well for the future.
"Don't forget," she said softly, her eyes glinting once more. In an instant, that glint was gone, and Zuko found himself breathing again. "So, where do I stand?"
He showed her, then explained that what she and him had to, at the same time, was to go through the steps and moves that the statues displayed, making sure to keep their feet on the trigger-stones that would bring up the pedestal.
Mai sighed as she stepped on the first of the stones, raising her arms and feeling like an idiot. Zuko caught her and grinned. "Yeah, I felt the same way."
She merely scowled at him, and he stepped into position as well. With a fleeting grin to Mai, he began, and she followed, her moves a split-second behind his. It's strange, she thought as she went through the motions, doing firebending moves. She had never done them before, since her martial art only required basic forms and katas. Firebending moves, however ancient, were strange and odd – but they weren't bad. She felt parts of her body she never used in her own forms reacting to them, straining to keep up, and the sudden slight ache was unsurprising, but almost welcome; it had to mean that she was doing it right. Her body warmed up a little, watching Zuko from the corner of her eye to keep up with him. It was almost as if it was unnatural warmth and not the normal kind that came with exercise.
When they met in the middle, their fists touching, Mai burst into laughter – a laugh that cut off when that odd warmth suddenly went hot in her gut before vanishing. She blinked, surprised, and was about to mention it to Zuko – was that normal? – when a grating noise cut off any other thoughts.
They pulled away, Zuko pausing to give her a soft kiss on her cheek in gratitude, before watching as the floor gaped open and something came up from it.
It was a pedestal. But it was empty.
Zuko and Mai stared, sharing a moment of real bemusement. After all that Zuko had exulted about, she was surprised to see nothing there.
"So where is it?" she wondered, her voice empty of the usual flatness.
He walked forward, his hands out as if to cup them around something, but they stopped short of the empty pedestal. "That's ... a really good question," he admitted finally. "Where did it go? And why?"
Mai shrugged. "I'm madder that I had to dance for nothing," she replied honestly. "Shall we get out of here; see if we can find the village, now?"
He nodded slowly, his face still a perfect example of utter confusion. "I swear, it was here..."
She smiled, reaching up and cupping his face in her hands, giving him a little shake that made him smile. "I know that," she said, "but it's not here now, and just as well - I don't fancy being stuck in glue."
Zuko closed his eyes and nodded at that. "Yeah. Let's go."
She gave him a little shake again, then let go. As they were leaving, she added, "Don't forget - you owe me."
He groaned in dismay, and she laughed.