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.
This took way too long! Sorry! I haven't felt very inspired lately to write this story, and only last week was I able to. I don't anticipate another long lull, but just in case, be patient with me!
This chapter also marks my surpassing the 20,000 minimum. Wooo!
All things considered, it probably wasn't as hard as it should have been to break the news. Granted, letters were sent by hawk in the evening to friends and family – and especially the Sun Warriors – but the real question was what should be done when it came to the meetings that had to be attended to beforehand.
It was Mai that came up with the simple solution that, in the end, turned out to be the best one. "We should just show up," she said flatly. They were walking down the hallway back towards the exit of the incubation room. "If we didn't show up, they would just find reasons to get irritated. But if we show up with the very reason why we're late, they can't find a fault with it."
"Er, well," Quoro broke in. "They could find fault with the fact that you hid it from them."
"It wasn't really any of their business," Mai replied without so much as a pause. "Only now, when it could affect them, does it concern them."
Zuko was silent, listening to this and thinking almost at once. In her own way, Mai was definitely right; if this worked, and they managed to solidify a new relationship with the Sun Warriors, the world as they knew it would change – possibly in a way that was irreversible. It would affect everyone, and not just Mai and Zuko. So while he could understand his people balking at the sudden reappearance of a dragon, at the same time he couldn't help but think that it was probably for the best that they would. The days of killing dragons for a title were long gone – and good riddance, Zuko thought glumly. It was about time that things started to change.
"But I must emphasize this." Quoro's voice broke into Zuko's thoughts almost too loudly. "If you bring it up and it is ill-received by anyone, you do bring a risk, not just to yourselves, but also to the Nation."
Mai sighed, leaning her head and nuzzling the still-sleeping dragon in her arms. "Whatever," she answered.
"Quoro," Zuko interjected gently, "Listen. Mai has a point. We pretty much don't have a choice at this point. We either keep on hiding it and risk it being found out, which would probably cause a scandal, or reveal it ourselves, cause a scandal, but be able to control it. Either way, it's going to happen: people will find out. I think just showing up is the best idea."
The archivist opened his mouth, then closed it. If Quoro was anything, it was discreet. "Very well," he finally agreed. "I will support you."
"That was the first thing you should have said," Mai snapped, sounding huffy. She increased her speed and quickly left the two men behind her.
"She is right," Zuko said mildly.
"Yes, well," Quoro scratched his cheek a little, clearly agreeing but not wanting to admit it. "In any case, I'll go ahead and call the meeting."
Soon he hurried off, but Zuko knew that he would never catch up with Mai like he wanted to. If Mai had wanted him to, she would have let it happen, and Zuko had seen her mood before: she did not like being questioned when it came to decisions, especially when she knew that they were the right ones. It brought too much of a reminder of what her childhood had been like, and while it could make her stubborn, it also made her strong.
He hoped that he could depend on that strength during the meeting. He highly doubted that it would be easy.
The meeting was called, and before they walked upon the dais, Zuko leaned in close to Mai, who was still holding the dragon close to her. He eyed them both, and saw that while the dragon looked sleepier than anything else, her surrogate mother looked anything but. Her bright eyes were brighter with her determination, and her mouth was set in a grim line. To anyone else she would look untouchable, but to Zuko she merely looked nervous and unsure. Gently, he touched her shoulder, and she looked up at him, the lines around her mouth and eyes relaxing just a bit.
"Ready?" he wondered.
Mai nodded. "Yes."
Together, they walked to the dais. They had worn their proper robes to the incubation chamber, prepared to go to the meetings scheduled following the treatment. However, while the robes themselves were of impeccable taste, the soot and mucus that flecked and stained them were not. Mai's cheeks went pink and Zuko's ears went red, but they were still able to keep their expressions steady as they sat down, Zuko upon the throne and Mai on the seat beside him.
"Sorry we're late," Zuko said, and Mai was impressed; his voice was even. "Something we had been anticipating occurred earlier than planned."
A silence met these words. Mai ventured a look outward, and saw that the two dozen courtiers seated in front of them were staring with their eyes wide and their mouths open (with perhaps the exception of those in the back, who could not see the details enough to be shocked).
From her arms, the dragon raised her head, eyed the crowd in front of her, then seemed to attempt to burrow herself further into Mai's arms, her face hidden in the crook of her elbow. Apparently, she was shy – well, without anyone other than her new parents.
"Er," came the Minister of the Purse, his voice almost breathless. "Is that … er…?"
"A dragon," Zuko confirmed. He was answered by a wave of surprised whispers and exchanged glances. "A baby dragon, just hatched a moment ago."
"But, Firelord, you never told us anything about this," another minister piped in, sounding irritated.
"True," Zuko agreed, his palms getting clammy. He sounded far calmer than he actually was; inwardly, his insides were like lead, his fear of a revolt weighing them down. "But now we've come clean with it."
Mai spoke up. "We honestly weren't sure if the egg would hatch to begin with," she said, and Zuko realised with a sad sort of surprise that she was right – in a way, they both hadn't been too sure about it. "And therefore we figured it would be best to keep it to ourselves until we were sure."
"But a dragon," the Minister of War breathed out, her eyes wide. "I thought they were extinct, ever since hunting and killing them became part of status."
Mai's eyes snaked over to Zuko's, and silently they debated about how much to reveal. Mai looked wary, so Zuko said, "We were lucky when we found this one." A half-truth, but a truth nonetheless.
There was another wave of whispers and surprised murmurs. Mai smiled at him faintly, just a slight curving up her lips, and it warmed him.
"I've decided to reveal this to you all today," he continued, speaking over the murmurs and thus silencing them, "because in order to be trusted one must show trust." His voice softened, and once again Mai's gaze fell on him. "I understand how hard things have been lately. I know it's hard to think that there's an easier way to live. I'm trusting you all with this so that you will all grow to trust me – and therefore trust in my ability to make things right."
"But Firelord," a voice broke in from the back. "With respect, but … a dragon?"
"Yes," Mai said, trying to pull the dragon in question away from her chest. "Would you like to know her name?" The dragon scrabbled for a moment, her claws stuck in Mai's robes, but when Mai wouldn't give up, she gave up and went limp, looking like a dragon-shaped sack. Her eyes, though, were on Mai, and the look she was giving her was one of obvious annoyance.
When no one said anything, Mai smiled. "Hibana," she said softly. The dragon looked up and blinked at her, no longer looking haughty or petulant. "That's you," Mai whispered to her. The dragon blinked slowly, then huffed, a tiny cloud of hot smoke erupting from her nose, as if she knew it all along.
"Er, well, that's not quite a regal name…" a woman said. When Mai looked at her, she realized that the woman was old enough to remember when dragons were everywhere, so perhaps she would know. "And, you'd think that, with this dragon being regal, perhaps something more majestic?"
Zuko rolled his eyes, and Mai had to fight herself from doing the same. "Roku's dragon was named 'Fang' and no one said it was wrong. And anyway, she's our dragon, so that's that."
"With respect, Firelord," someone piped up (Zuko hated that phrase, because usually it meant that the words following lacked any respect), "what are we supposed to think about this?"
Both Mai and Zuko eyed him closely and saw that he was the mayor of one of the old Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom – one of the many that were given back their township following the end of the war. It was irritating; no matter what either of them said, he would think whatever he wanted. There was no way that they could tell the full story, not without the Sun Warriors' consent, but even then, it wasn't as if he and Mai had brought home a hoard of dragons to use to take over the world. It was just one baby.
"Well," Zuko said slowly, resisting the urge to tug at his hair. "You don't have to think about anything, really. Or you can think whatever you want. We just thought that you all should know."
"Well, personally, I'm delighted," a voice called out from the far back, and both Mai and Zuko smirked; neither of them had realized that Toph had snuck into the meeting, but they were glad that she had all the same. "After all, at least now we have proof that something more hotheaded than the Fusslord exists in this world."
There was a gentle wave of laughter, some of it fake, but most of it real. Hibana snorted again, her eyes on Toph's shadowy form, as if taking offence to such a comment. When the ministers gazed back at the dais, their faces were much more relaxed and friendly, and Zuko thanked any and all of the spirits of the world for helping Toph to sneak in to the meeting.
"Now," he said, using what Mai had coined his Firelord voice, "onto business."
The rest of the meeting was spent as usual, with the usual complaints and suggestions from the crowd of worried or flustered politicians. Zuko would have found it grating, except that Mai was at his side, and within her arms, HIbana. Knowing they were both there sent warmth through his heart, a warmth that was not just from Hibana's occasional puffs of smoke.
The interesting thing was that Hibana seemed to understand what was being said around her. Zuko had thought it was just a passing fancy that he had had within the first hour of her hatching, but now he wasn't so sure about that. Her eyes would fall on the person speaking, and she seemed almost as if she were calculating what was being said. If she (or, come to think of it, Mai or Zuko) found it harmless, she would hide her face in Mai's arm. If she found it offensive, a puff of smoke would issue from her nose and mouth. It could be said that perhaps she was merely picking up on the emotional signals of her new parents, but again, Zuko wasn't too sure it was just that.
When the meeting was over and everyone filed out, Toph met them at the foot of the dais, her grin justifiable wide. Haru was a little ways behind her, looking faintly amused but also hurried about something. – clearly he was in a rush to get to somewhere, and wanted Toph to hurry as well.
"Toph, you're a lifesaver," Zuko blurted. "Thank you."
"Of course I am," she answered. "Maybe next time you'll remember this when you need someone to cover for you again."
Mai raised an eyebrow, then gracefully dropped from the dais to the floor beside her, Hibana still in her eyes. Hibana's neck was stretched long, her eyes on Toph, her nose leaning close to her. "Don't push your luck," Mai answered wryly. "You know that your little additions were in bad taste."
"Only if they had been smaller," she answered automatically. Her sightless eyes blinked, and she leaned closer to Mai, her hand out. "That dragon has a really hot belly," she said. When her fingertips touched Hibana's slightly damp nose, her eyes widened and she smiled wider, the gesture losing its sardonic edge. "Heh, cute. Maybe I want one, now."
Zuko leaned in close. "Talk to the Sun Warriors about that, remember?"
Her fingers were already under Hibana's chin, scratching almost expertly. The chittering noise issued from her again, and Toph couldn't help but laugh.
Haru's curiosity seemed to win at this point, and he leaned over her shoulder to get a closer look. "You know, I've seen a lot of different animals before, but a dragon? Never outside of a storybook."
"That's everyone, Rock-butt," Toph answered cheerfully. Haru went a little pink at the nickname, but he didn't say anything in reply. She seemed to get the hint, for she pulled her hand away and stood up straight. "Anyway, we have to get going. Unlike you, Haru and I have lives and need to live them."
"Keep in contact with me if anything else comes up," Zuko demanded, and Toph rolled her eyes.
"Yes, yes, I will. Luckily I still have the Duke." She pointed behind her, and standing in the doorway, looking a cross between annoyed and jealous, was the Duke. Zuko found that odd; why didn't he come over to join them? Was he still mad about being used as a scribe?
Mai leaned close to Toph's ear. "Are you keeping a harem, by any chance?"
Toph jerked her head away, laughing again, but this time her laugh was forced, and her cheeks flared bright red. "Haha, what a kidder you are, Mai!" she answered loudly. "Anyway, we're off!" And she turned and stormed away. Haru shot them an apologetic look, then followed.
Mai tilted her head and looked at Zuko with a small, catlike smile. "Well," she said, "that certainly was an interesting afternoon."
"One of many, I bet," he answered. He leaned over and resumed Toph's chin-scratching. "How long do you think it'll take for the news to break out?"
"A week, maybe less," she said confidently. "Courtiers are notorious gossips."
Zuko made a face. "I was the child of royalty, and I never was exposed to gossip. My parents were better than that."
Mai snorted, and Zuko glared at her. "Everyone gossips. I bet even you."
"Of course I don't!" But his unscarred ear went red.
"Oh, please? You wrote three scrolls to the Southern Water Tribe that was full of whining and rumours and gossip."
"You read that?" he demanded.
"No; Katara wrote to me and told me. See, at least I admit to gossiping." Mai said this casually, but a smile threatened to curve her lips.
"You always love to tease me," he said, only very slightly pouting.
She grinned now, slipping her arm through his while shifting Hibana to the other. "You make it easy. Shall we head back to our chambers, get settled with our new charge?"
He sighed, but tugged her closer, and she laughed. He grumbled again, and she laughed again. Her laughs were always soft and low, never too loud or forceful, but they still delighted him all the same – even when he was the subject of them.
Pretty soon, a lower sort of trill emerged from Hibana. "Oh great, now she's laughing at me too."
Mai leaned her head on his shoulder and replied, "Well, that's how you know she's part of the family."