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.
Zuko led Mai back down the steps, a little at a loss. The last time he had been here with Aang, it had been … well, maybe not easy, but certainly less of a perplexing challenge. Blundering into the egg was enough to get the Sun Warriors' attention, but apparently this time it wasn't enough to just simply go through those same motions. His eyes roamed over the seemingly empty ruins of crumbling structures below, and his mind wandered, lost in the idea that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people lived there, hidden – maybe even watching both of them in silence as they walked.
What does it take to get your attention? he wondered. What does it take for you to see us?
"You know," Mai said suddenly, her voice breaking him out of his thoughts. "For a people who invited us, they're being very rude."
"Maybe they just don't know we're here yet."
"How could they be that stupid?" was her flat answer. "We came by war balloon, stumbled on some of their traps, and also triggered their little dance-trap. And none of these are hints that we're here?"
Zuko said nothing. He honestly didn't have answers for her, and any conclusions that he had were unhappy ones.
Maybe they changed their minds.
Maybe they saw us and left, deciding we weren't worthy.
All of this wasted time for nothing. We put the Nation at risk for nothing.
He shuddered at the thought of the paperwork waiting for him when he got back.
"Do you want to just head home?" he said out loud. Mai blinked and turned to him, surprised. He went on, embarrassed, knowing that it was clear in his voice. "I mean, we came here, and no one is here. If they're not here, we shouldn't waste any more time, right?"
She frowned, her eyebrows coming close together. "Okay," she said.
"But then, why did they bother in the first place?" he added, glaring out at the ruins as if he could find a person to glare at. "They made it sound so important. I don't know if I would feel good about just leaving without actually making an effort..."
"Okay," Mai said again, the same way.
Zuko sighed, squeezing his eyes shut and tugging at his hair. He felt like he did in the middle of war meetings – grumpy and eager to make it end, but still stubborn enough to keep it going until it was resolved. Mai's touch brought him out of his stupor, her hands tugging his away from his hair. She held them, squeezing them, and he opened his eyes to find her sombre gaze fixed on him. "Let's look around," she said, her tone final. "You and I both want to stay. Let's make them see us."
He blinked at her, realising that, in fact, it was true: he was confused, but overall, he wanted to see it to the end no matter what. He smiled at her, squeezing her hands back. "Yeah," he agreed. "Let's keep looking."
While by now they were savvier to the traps that littered the grounds, occasionally one of them would stray into one of them without thinking. It usually brought a laugh from at least one of them, depending on who was caught and who wasn't, and those moments made for a good distraction from the facts that lay before them: there was either no one there, or they weren't in the mood to talk. The monotony was occasionally broken by a meal break or a necessity break; the latter was usually met with blushing or swearing.
Soon, the sun began to meet with the horizon, cooling the air and bringing the two closer together as they walked. The dimming light made it harder for them to detect the traps, and even with a flame that Zuko provided they had to admit that their searching was, for now, at a stand-still.
"Go back to the balloon?" Mai wondered, her arm around his waist.
Zuko thought about it, then shook his head. "Honestly, I don't know if we could make it there before nightfall, and..." His eyes sparked, a small smile coming to his lips. "It's not that cold. We should sleep out in the open."
Mai raised an eyebrow at him, but found a smile as well. "You're silly, today," she observed.
"Call it a nice end to a disappointing day," he replied cheerfully. She rolled her eyes, but agreed to it, anyway. He was right, after all.
From a pack on his back, the one in which he carried food and drink, and pulled out a blanket, raising his eyebrow at her. She crossed her arms and simply watched as he shook it out and spread it upon the stone ground beneath. He sat down, facing the dying sun, and looked over his shoulder, giving the ground beside him a pat.
She uttered a small laugh, unable to keep it in, before sitting down beside him and snuggling close into his side. He held her close, and in silence, they watched the sun vanish.
"You know," Zuko murmured, "even if they have stood us up, watching this with you makes it all worth it."
She closed her eyes, resting her head on his shoulder, inwardly amazed that he had somehow known her thoughts. Out loud, she said, "Try telling that to our ministers."
He laughed, sensing the words beneath the words, and kissed her on the top of her head.
Somehow, they had fallen asleep, curled up under a second blanket and using Zuko's bag as a pillow. Despite the hard stone beneath them, both were travel-hardened, used to rough conditions and rougher places to sleep. And yet, Zuko thought, curling close to Mai and slowly waking up as the sun crested over them, I would have thought that we would have lost that hardness over the years within the Palace. Maybe not. Maybe we'll always have it.
"Ow," Mai groaned suddenly, "my ass hurts."
Zuko burst out laughing at this, earning a very black scowl from his wife.
After a modest breakfast and a brief moment in which the camp was cleared and discomforts were taken care of, Mai remained sitting while Zuko shaded his eyes and looked around, as if trying to find a flash of gold or red.
"Now that it's a new day," Mai said softly, her chin in her hands, "what would you like to do?"
Her tone was neutral, her face expressing only interest. Zuko looked closely at her, as if trying to detect reluctance or weariness, but he saw none. She seemed merely curious. "To be honest," he said hesitantly, "I'm sort of pissed off." Mai smiled a little at this. "I mean, we came all the way here, at their command, and they're not even here. We've had to eat rations-"
"Yes, exactly!" Zuko's voice was getting higher with his frustration. "And sleep on the cold stone, and they're still not here! What I want to know is, why?"
"I honestly want to know what happened to that egg," Mai replied lightly, her chin still on her hands, her gaze unfocussed.
He walked over to her and sat down in a huff, copying her. "I think we should just stay here until they bother to show up."
"Okay," Mai agreed lightly. "But what if they don't know we're here?"
Zuko blinked, raising his head from his hands. "How could they not know?"
"Because all they do is hide," she answered, sounding bored. "Just because they set the traps doesn't mean they know when they're tripped."
"But the Dragon Dance-"
"We didn't trigger that trap, like you and Aang did last time."
"Are you saying we should?"
She reached over and shoved her finger up his nose, making him splutter and jerk his head away. "I think you should calm down and think for a moment," she replied. "You can't think with your emotions on this one, love. You have to think with your mind. This is probably one of the most important things that could happen while you're Firelord, and one of the most important alliances you could ever make." She stared at him plainly, her chin still on one of her hands. "Don't act like an idiot with this, Zuko. We, as a people, need this."
She pulled her finger from his nose, making him rub it a little, a faint blush rising to his cheeks. He sighed. "So what do we do?"
She smiled at him. "What do you think we should do?"
He made a face. "Go home."
She scowled at him.
"Fine. I really do want to meet them. I just don't know how."
"Seriously? You can't think of any other place to meet them?"
He blinked, bemused, before blushing again, deeper. He slapped a hand to his forehead. "Oh, I really am an idiot."
She ruffled his hair affectionately. "It's okay. I still love you." She got to her feet and smiled. "Lead the way, Firelord."
He sighed, got to his feet, and nodded, taking her hand and leading the way.
Most of the journey was uphill, something that Zuko had forgotten about but Mai took in stride regardless. She was more impressed with the amount of green in the area, a surprising site amidst the dry palate of stone on stone. She kept her eyes on the distant figure of the mountains, their destination, deciding that she would probably be impressed several times over before the trip was done.
She wasn't wrong. When they crested over the hill and back onto stone ground, an amazing sight met them.
"You are late, Firelord," a voice called out.
Mai looked up and saw an immense ring of people, a kind of people she had never seen before, not even in history books. They stood impressively, holding rings of fire in their hands, their clothes various shades of red and gold (if any clothes at all, in some cases, she noticed with a faint blush). Most wore their hair in a single tail atop their heads, the rest shaved – even the women. In the middle of the circle stood two men: one was clearly the Chief, with his impressive headdress and fancier clothes. The second, a taller, thinner man, was also dressed elegantly, but in an understated way. Mai guessed that he was some sort of second-in-command.
Without really wanting to admit it, she had to accept that she was intimidated. She wandered closer to Zuko's side, grabbing his hand, making sure her face was schooled perfectly blank. The last thing she needed was to show her intimidation.
Zuko seemed to be handling it better than she was. He seemed relieved, almost relaxed, when he saw them. He gave Mai's hand a squeeze, then let it go in order to bow low to them. Mai blinked, then did the same; if he, the Firelord, was bowing to someone, then she should as well. When he raised his head, he was smiling. "Sorry," he said, "but it took me a moment to figure out where you would be."
The Chief walked over, his face stern, his companion staying behind. Zuko lowered his hands, and Mai grabbed one again. "Everything begins and ends here, Firelord," said the Chief, his voice resonant and clear. "You were trained here. You learned about firebending – and yourself – here. And now, we have need of you here, in this place."
Zuko nodded slowly. He then paused, before saying, "So what do you need? You didn't mention why you wanted to see us."
"And why it's Zuko and me, and not Zuko and Aang," Mai added without thinking. The Chief turned to look closely at her, and she blinked, staring back with determination. Now that she looked closer, he didn't look mean, per se – rather, he looked more like he had had a challenging life, and was still expecting it to continue being that way.
"I asked you both here for a very simple reason," the Chief said finally, keeping his gaze on Mai's for a moment longer before looking at Zuko. "We require a favour from you."
Unable to resist, Mai and Zuko exchanged surprised looks. It was, after all, rather odd; what could either of them have to offer the Sun Warriors? Zuko raised his eyebrow, and Mai blinked slowly.
"Well, if you just ask..." Zuko said uneasily, worried about the response.
It was at this that the second-in-command came striding up to them, his face drawn with barely-contained rage. The Chief merely stood still, not even looking over, when the man came and leaned in close to the royal couple. "You think that you have the right to question a favour from us, after we risked so much to help you those years ago, as well as even contact you? You have some nerve, the nerve of your grandfather!"
Zuko's cheeks went bright red, but two years on the throne did much to reign in his temper. He took in a deep breath and clenched his fists, opening his mouth to reply, but the Chief overrode him. The larger man turned on the other, his face impassive. "Ham Gao, the Firelord has a right to refuse or accept," he said. His voice was calm, but it also held a note that suggested that the topic left little for discussion. Mai had the feeling that he had to explain this to Ham Gao a lot.
"He would be a fool if he denied us this one request," Ham Gao snapped back.
"Maybe you should actually ask me before already assuming I'm going to say no," Zuko broke in, tugging at his bangs in irritation. Mai smiled at him, proud that he spoke up.
Ham Gao snapped his mouth shut, but his glare turned into a glower. The Chief decided to ignore him, turning back to Zuko. "Please excuse my associate. He speaks honestly, but ... without tact."
"It's okay," Mai spoke up, smiling wryly. "We have friends like that."
"First, walk with me." The Chief gave Ham Gao a pointed look, but the other man merely crossed his arms and remained at his side. Zuko and Mai decided to just walk at the Chief's other side. Together, under the curious gazes of dozens of other Sun Warriors, the four walked towards the high stone steps. Mai's eyes roamed over the sight, drinking it all in; who knew when she would be back here again? She wanted to remember this for the rest of her life.
The stairs were high. She couldn't imagine Zuko and Aang being able to keep calm while being watched by hundreds of eyes as they walked so high. Wouldn't that be nerve-wracking? She wondered how she would handle something like that; she was pretty sure she wasn't afraid of heights, but maybe the audience would throw her off-balance.
"You should probably know something of our history," the Chief went on. "The last time you were here, Firelord, you and the Avatar triggered a trap when one of you touched the egg that was resting there." At this, Ham Gao's scowl blackened, and Zuko blushed. "It was, in fact, alive."
Mai's eyes widened and met Zuko's, who was already looking at her with surprise. I was right, she mouthed to him. He looked sick at the thought – he was probably wondering what would have happened if he had broken it. Probably something worse than sticky glue.
"It's alright," the Chief added, obviously sensing Zuko's sudden embarrassment. "No harm was done. The fact is, every fifty years, we acquire an egg like that."
"Acquire?" Mai wondered.
"Well, it is born to us."
Both Mai and Zuko stopped in mid-stride, obviously sharing the same thought. Neither of them had ever imagined that the dragons were still breeding - only that there were at least two left that had escaped death. It had just never occurred to them that perhaps, somehow, they would be able to breed. The Chief and Ham Gao had walked a few more steps before realising that their fellow walkers had stopped. The Chief blinked. "Really, this shouldn't be much of a shock. We've hidden from you for a century. We have had to survive ... all of us."
Zuko nodded, looking surprised but also abashed. Mai touched his hand gently. It wasn't his fault.
"In any case," the Chief went on, oblivious to – or perhaps ignoring – Ham Gao's constant sneering, "every fifty years, the dragons entrust us with one of their eggs. It ensures us that the bond between us remains, no matter what. This is one of those years. In fact, two years ago, the egg you stumbled upon was freshly born and incubating. Now is the time for it to soon hatch."
"Hatch?" Zuko blinked.
Mai suddenly realised where this was going, and rather hoped she wasn't way off on her assumption. "So why are you telling us this?"
The Chief turned to her, his eyes suddenly sparking. "I think you already know, Firelady."
Zuko turned to her in surprise, and she grimaced. "But we don't know anything about that kind of thing."
"Of course we know you're ignorant," Ham Gao suddenly said. "That is to be expected. You think we would just leave you without instruction, if we decide to do this at all?"
"We have decided, Ham Gao," the Chief interjected blandly.
"Can I know what you've all decided on?" Zuko wondered, sounding annoyed.
Mai smiled a little, and the Chief had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. He turned his full attention to the Firelord. "You're right. My apologies. We want you to be the ones who will raise the dragon egg from hatching this time around."
Zuko stared, his mouth slightly open. "You want us to ... what?"
"Raise the dragon, Zuko," Mai said patiently. "It's not hard to understand."
"Yes it is!" he spluttered, throwing his arms out. "We know nothing about raising dragons! Or young dragons!"
"Or babies," Mai added with a smirk.
"Or babies!" Zuko agreed.
"I know something about babies," she corrected quickly. "My little brother was born when I was fifteen, after all."
Zuko whirled on her, his eyes wide. "That doesn't help me! I was only two when Azula was born! I was still a baby!"
Mai reached out and shoved her finger up his nose, forcing a shout from him – but at least he stopped arguing. "Go on," she said to the Chief, who had been standing there in silence with somewhat widened eyes. Ham Gao, however, was rather open with his dismay and dread, and he gawked at them.
"You may stay for a few days while we go over the basics," the Chief finally said. "And any other questions can be sent by hawk. We will not just leave the egg to you and expect you to get it perfect." His eyes crinkled up and he smiled, surprising the couple enough for them to blink at him. Mai removed her finger and Zuko rubbed his nose with both hands.
"Just one question," Zuko now said, his voice slightly muffled. "Why are you doing this?"
"Why else, Firelord? To cement the new bonds between our peoples. If you succeed, we will remain at your side for the remainder of our days." Zuko and Mai exchanged a glance. The Chief's smile widened, although not from mirth. "Let us hope you do not fail."