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.
Special Note: Please expect some minor delays in posting. For example, there will be no update on Wednesday, since I will be away from the computer that day. I plan on using my spare time at work to finish and edit the remainder of this story, but considering how hectic my health has been as of late, please be patient with me and remember this when you see some delays =3.
Quoro led them to the chamber, a cold place buried deep in the bowels of the Palace, the only light coming from the small flame in his hand. It was no small wonder why no one had found it previously; if it hadn't been for Quoro's careful instructions from Toph, they never would have even noticed it. Both Zuko and Mai wore their necks out looking from right to left as they descended further and further upon slightly damp stone stairs. The staircase was narrow and only opened up once they went through a second door at its end, one triggered only by firebending upon a small hole where, normally, a handle or knob would be.
Using his simple form of bending, Quoro opened the door, one that opened slowly with disuse and neglect. Before them yawned a dimly-lit hallway made mostly of stone, with the occasional faded tapestry gracing the walls. As they walked, the smell of mildew touched their noses, and both Mai and Zuko eyed the tapestries closely; upon them was the royal insignia, but the shape of a dragon curled around it. They were definitely in the right spot.
"In all of my years working here," Quoro said, his voice breaking through the gloom of the hallway, "I had never known of this chamber. Neither your father nor grandfather must have known, either – although I assume that, as children, both had some exposure to dragons, considering their eventual involvement."
Zuko's face went dark. All three knew what was meant by "eventual involvement". "Luckily, my father never got to the rank of Dragon," he answered, his voice thin. "Only Uncle did, and well, it was a lie."
"Yes, I had heard about General Iroh's promotion," Quoro agreed. "Your father was angry for years over that."
"I'll bet," was the terse answer.
Quoro tactfully changed the subject. "I'm surprised you didn't correct me just now, when I mentioned the dragons. For surely that is what you have brought home, is it not?"
Mai smirked at him. "How long have you known?"
"As soon as I stepped in this hallway, I knew."
"Nothing escapes you. We're lucky to have you on our side." It was said lightly, but it was the truth all the same. Quoro had been through three reigns of Firelords, if you included Zuko, and had served two of those Firelords as an archivist. The amount of information he had was priceless – and thus best kept within their ranks and no one else's.
"I'm not quite sure I want to be around your side with a dragon in the midst," Quoro answered just as lightly. "I have heard they are volatile creatures." He stopped suddenly, the hallway coming to an end at another door. This one opened normally, and as they walked in, both were relieved to see an exact copy – although slightly smaller – of the chamber that they had spent the previous week in. Zuko walked around, running his hands over the walls slowly, making sure that everything was there that they would need, while Mai knelt at the pit, placing the box gently beside it.
Quoro stood at the door. "Forgive my breach of conduct, but may I be so forward as to request my watching this?"
Zuko and Mai met eyes. There had been nothing about not allowing others to be in the chamber at the times of the treatments, but at the same time, the Sun Warriors had been careful not to disturb them. But then, without Quoro, they probably wouldn't be in this chamber in the first place …
Mai shrugged, and Zuko nodded. "Just stay still, and stay quiet, okay?" When Quoro nodded, Zuko lit the fires, and the treatment began. At first, it was a little awkward, for both felt that they were performing for an audience. However, Quoro was a marvellous spectator, and pretty soon it was easy to ignore him, especially when it came to cooling the egg.
"Zuko," Mai said suddenly, her voice barely above a whisper, "there's a problem."
"What?" Zuko's voice was almost sleepy.
"What do we do with the egg now? There are no Sun Warriors to take it away. So … what do we do?"
Zuko's eyes snapped open. "Uh, good question. Didn't we just … leave it there?"
Mai made a face. "Yes, but …" She hugged the egg closer. "For some reason, I don't like that idea. It just seems rather cold."
"If I may interject," Quoro said suddenly scaring them both into remembering that he was still in the room. "If the Firelord and Lady would be so inclined, I can hire some staff in order to protect this room while you are not able to be here. The staff would not touch the egg, nor would they do anything to endanger it. They would also, of course, be sworn to keep their mouths closed should you need them to. Would that suffice?"
Mai smiled at Zuko. He nodded. Quoro smiled faintly and bowed. "I'll get right on that. In the meantime, I doubt the egg faces any danger alone right now. The only one who knows about this chamber other than myself is Lady Toph."
Reality was sudden remembered. "Toph," Zuko sighed.
"Let's get back up to the Palace," Mai advised.
"I told you to be good!"
"I was good!"
"Our version of good!"
"Hey, I was!"
"Being good is not adorning the dragon statues with gigantic stone—,"
"Hey, it looks nice! And the ones who protested probably don't remember what their own look like."
Mai sat with her eyes closed, sipping her tea and listening to the exchange with mild affection. Beside her, the Duke sat with his head in his hands, looking tired and embarrassed. He hadn't moved from this position once Zuko and Toph had started their bickering, and Mai couldn't really blame him; it was amusing, but it tended to get loud – especially if you weren't used it. Luckily, unlike the Duke, Mai was.
"Look, Fusslord," Toph was snapping now, her hands on her hips. "Is the Palace on fire? Is there mutiny, dissension? Are we at war again? No. I did my job, and more."
"It's that 'more' I'm upset about!"
"Get over it. That's my advice."
Zuko went red, a sign for Mai to step in if there was any. "Good advice, but still. Show some tact next time, Toph."
"If there is a next time," Zuko added.
"True; I don't intend on bringing home what we brought home a second time."
Toph made one final grumpy face, then sighed and threw herself down to sit beside the Duke, who didn't look up. "Yeah, speaking of which, what was that about, anyway?"
Zuko crossed his arms, looking as if he wanted to start the argument again. Mai looked up at him and raised an eyebrow, and he rolled his eyes and relaxed his arms. "We went south," he finally admitted.
Toph snorted, but the Duke looked up, blinking large eyes. "South? Close to the Air Temple?"
Mai nodded, and Zuko sat on her other side. "You were around when Zuko and Aang went to the ruins, weren't you?" she asked him.
The Duke nodded, smiling shyly. "Yeah, but I was kind of distracted – Teo and Haru found some really amazing things to explore, and honestly, I didn't notice they were gone until they came back and did that weird dancing thing."
Toph punched his arm. "You still have to show me what you idiots found. You still owe me." She turned back towards Mai and Zuko, an ability that Mai always found slightly eerie, since those sightless eyes of hers seemed to meet her own, despite it all. "And don't think I didn't notice you avoiding answering. Why did you go south? Was there a fussy-ruler convention that you hosted?"
Mai had to smile, but Zuko merely sighed. "Yes, Toph," he answered, his voice rich with sarcasm. "That's exactly where I went."
"I'm surprised you survived that. If I were Mai, I would have committed regicide."
"You deserved that," said Mai, as Zuko growled lowly. "Just answer her question."
All eyes landed on the Duke. He looked up and reddened, his face crumpling into an expression of indignant frustration. "No way," he snapped, before anyone could say anything. "I was stuck here while you were gone, I had to write the letters, so therefore, I have a right to know why I had to do all of that."
Toph grinned. She reached over and gave his hair an affectionate tousling. "He's got a point," she said, while he reached up and batted her hands away, his face getting redder.
Mai looked over at Zuko, who was already looking at her. She nodded once, and he sighed. "Alright. You're right, you have the right to know."
As best as he could, he told what had gone on. He stammered on a few things, and sometimes Mai helped him on remembering some things, but for the most part, he had gotten it right. When he had finished, both Toph and the Duke were quiet, their faces showing mixed degrees of surprise and awe.
"So when you had me looking for that chamber," Toph said, her voice soft, "It was because you brought a real, live dragon home?"
"Pretty much," Zuko agreed.
Toph's face lit up. "Can I see it? Can I play with it?"
"It's an egg," Mai answered. "If you play with it, it'll just break."
"Yeah," the Duke added with a snort, "you always play rough."
She reached over and flicked his head. "Does that mean we can leave now?" she asked. The Duke gave her a scathing look, knowing correctly that he was included in the 'we'.
Zuko narrowed his eyes. "You can leave once you take those damned things off of the dragon statues."
Toph grinned. "You'd think that you would want them there. Wouldn't it remind baby dragon of its daddy?"
Zuko sighed, and Mai had to hide another laugh behind her sleeve.
Over the course of a few weeks, much like they had while with the Sun Warriors, Mai and Zuko once more fell into a routine. Those within the staff that knew what was kept in the deep chambers of the Palace were sworn to secrecy, and they took care of the egg when neither Mai nor Zuko could. They continued their duties as usual, working with several delegates and ambassadors as well as they could in order to maintain the already fragile peace.
Zuko was always distracted, however. He knew it, and yet even knowing that couldn't keep his mind from wandering. Mai's fingers, more often than he liked, kept drifting to his side to exact a precise pinch in order to focus him back on the task at hand, rather than the cold pit beneath their feet housing something – or someone – mysterious and frightening.
All things considered, it really was rather miraculous that Zuko had any attention span to spare at all. Now that he and Mai had returned, there seemed to be even more for him to do, especially now that he had to make up for time lost. It seemed almost as if it would be impossible to be able to get themselves down to the chambers to treat the egg, and yet somehow, they always did. Somehow, they found a way. Though they lacked the details, most of the politicians knew that the Firelord and his wife were up to something important, and thus it was best not to argue – for now.
"What do we tell them once it hatches?" Zuko asked Mai one day, his voice muted despite the fact that they were alone. They were walking down the passageway that led from the chamber back to the Palace, a rather convenient one that Zuko found himself actually thanking his forefathers for. Mai walked beside him, silent for a moment as she thought.
"I don't know," she said finally. "I know we have to tell them, because if they find out on their own, I don't want to think about what that could bring. But how to tell them? That escapes me. All I can imagine is negativity."
"Exactly," Zuko agreed grimly. "How can we word it without seeming like a threat?"
"We're threats no matter what we do," Mai answered easily, in a way that made him both agree and feel sad. "The main naysayers are and will constantly looking for ways to prove us unfit and ripe to assassinate with just cause. They have been since you were named Firelord. Finding out we brought home a baby dragon will hardly diminish their anger."
Zuko said nothing for a moment. It was one of those moments in which he really understood that the truth was needed, but at the same time he hated hearing it. He knew that two years was much too short a time to expect a century's worth of dissension and chaos to vanish, but at the same time he wished that everyone would just trust him already. He was tired of constantly trying to prove himself, especially since most of the time it fell on deaf ears, anyway.
"Unless," Mai said suddenly, slipping her arm through his and bringing him back to reality. She looked up at him with a small smile. "Unless a dragon is enough to diminish it. If we succeed, the Sun Warriors will finally be able to come out in the open. Once it's made public that we were able to make peace within our own country, I can imagine it would help outside of it, too."
Zuko sighed, halting their progress in order to give her a long and close hug. She held him close, feeling how heavy he was – how tired he was – and feeling slightly better that she was able to get him to at least relax long enough to hug her.
"You always remind me why I married you, Mai," he murmured, his eyes shut. "In small ways, especially."
"Like you had a choice in the matter," she answered, barely able to contain her laugh. "No matter what, you would have come around. You just didn't get it, yet."
"Nah, I got it." He rested his head against hers, holding her close. She loved that, loved how he was able to give freely his emotions and never have fear. She hoped that, at least with him, she was able to do the same. "I just had no self-esteem."
"You'd think that my liking you would give you plenty."
He pulled back and gave her a wry smile, still holding her in his arms. She grinned up at him, that smile that spoke of promises she had yet to make, but that she would always keep. "Thanks."
Her eyes sparked. "For what? A reality check?"
"Yeah," he agreed, unable to contain a small laugh. "Definitely a reality check." He looked down at her, unable to keep what was probably a rather ridiculous smile from his face. She wrinkled her nose at him and smiled back, never knowing that her mere presence made reality clear for him every moment she was at his side, never realising that without her around, even the clearest reality looked dull and bare.
But he didn't say that. Instead, he looped his arm around her waist and hugged her close, before resuming their walk together, his steps much, much lighter.
He was not, nor ever would be, alone.