Chapter 1: quest for fire (Jeong-Jeong)
There had been much more dignity, and more stillness, in their new Fire Lord than Jeong-Jeong had expected. The young man was clearly still bothered by his injury - at least, it was clear to someone of Jeong-Jeong's experience with such things - but he gave it no particular mind. His speech, during the interview they shared, tea-pot and low table forming a subtle bridge between them, was courteous and quiet even if his voice was nearly as rough as Jeong-Jeong's own.
It had been private, in one of the many chambers of the palace, rather than an audience. Another man might be interested in watching how Fire Lord Zuko, young and (to be truthful) untrained in statescraft as he was, would navigate the pathways of ceremony, awe and circumstance. For his part, Jeong-Jeong didn't care.
He found that he was very, very tired.
"What do you plan to do now?" the boy (because ruler or not, he was still a boy, frighteningly young) had asked.
It was a question Jeong-Jeong had been avoiding asking himself. He knew, or was at least fairly certain, that rank and commission were still open to him now, with the change of the world, if he wanted them.
He was equally certain he did not.
"I have a suggestion," the Fire Lord said, showing clearly that he was smart enough to read between the words of Jeong-Jeong's deflection, which boded well for him. One of the servants came forward with what looked like a scroll, bowing and giving it to Jeong-Jeong at the Fire Lord's nod.
It turned out to be a map. Hand-drawn, but not terribly crude, and carefully rolled.
"It's not a journey you should make with anyone else," the Fire Lord said, picking up his tea. "You'll find ruins at the end of it. But there are some things there that I think you might be interested in."
And one did not last so long in as a White Lotus without being able to hear when so young and unstudied a man is hiding meaning between words. Jeong-Jeong took the map.
He debated a very long time.
When he left, it was alone. He had travelled alone for a long time, lived alone by preference, but only now could he convince those last few who (foolishly enough) loved him and followed him to stay behind, to build their own lives, and let him go.
At night, he lay out of doors, on the ground, and looked up at the stars. An off-hand comment the Avatar made during the days after the end of the war echoed in his head: the same cool light of the stars came from fire as great as the sun, endless thousands of miles away.
He watched the moon, and remembered the Water Tribe girl putting her hands into the stream and finding them whole again, and what he said to her. The wish he still had.
He didn't bother to wonder to what, exactly, this map lead him. He didn't have anything else to do, anyway. Pondering fire on candles, alone, lost its charm.
Chapter 2: perfection (first: azula)
Her mother is combing her hair.
Part of Azula is trying to decide if this is real. Part of her wants to lean back into gentle fingers and gentle comb, gentle voice murmuring things she can't understand. And part of her -
Part of her wants to stand up, to push the voice away, tear the comb out of those fingers and fling it at her face, push herself into the corner, run away, far away, far -
"Azula." Now her mother is saying her name. Carefully. Insistently. "Azula, darling, you're hurting your hands."
Azula looks down at them, where she's clenched them into fists, where her nails are digging into her palms and beginning to split the skin. Her mother puts down the comb, reaches over and as gentle as with her hair uncurls her fingers and spreads them out flat on Azula's lap.
There is a screaming in her head, and a laughing. "There," her mother says.
Azula looks at herself in the mirror in front of her. She is framed, and her mother is behind her, and she knows she has seen this before. Has seen this before, but it was different; has seen this before, but the image is wrong, all wrong, wrong wrong wrong, because before, before her mother was in her royal robes, because before, Azula's hair was - different, it was different, there were pieces down. In the mirror it was almost right, it was almost perfect, but that's not good enough -
The small table is on the floor now, with the comb and the brush and all the other things that were on it, but there are no scissors. Azula's mother has gotten to her feet and stepped back, but she doesn't go away, and her hands aren't clasped together, one holds the other elbow instead and no, it's wrong, this is all wrong, and the mirror is the wrong shape - she can pull her hair out of the tidy, but this is wrong, is this real? She's not sure. She can't tell -
"Azula!" Her mother is kneeling down now, and her face is not the serenity in the mirror, calm and gentle. It is worried and a frown is between her eyebrows and why, why is Azula on the floor? She doesn't remember being on the floor, doesn't remember sitting down.
There is hair between her fingers. Azula stares at it, as her mother takes her hands and takes it away. "Be careful," her mother says, softly. "Be careful, my darling, or you're going to hurt yourself."
"You're not real," Azula tells her, sure of it. "You're not like you were in the mirror. You're a trick. It was almost perfect, but almost isn't good enough - you're not real, get away from me!" And she shoves the hands that are just a phantasm, a trick of her mind, away.
The thing that isn't her mother, the idea of her mother, sits back on her heels, and looks sad, and it hurts, so Azula hides her eyes.
Chapter 3: perfection (second: zuko)
"Are you still brooding?"
Mai's voice startled Zuko, made him throw a bigger piece of bread than he'd meant to, and startled two of the turtle-ducklings: the mother scolded him at length before starting to pull the hunk of bread apart for her babies. He looked up.
There was a knack to reading Mai's expressions. Mostly, it involved knowing that the idea that someone else might know what she was really thinking (as opposed to what she'd decided to express) was close to the most terrifying thing in the world, while at the same time knowing that she didn't bother making an expression for most things because caring enough to was too much work, and so working out the correspondence between the ones she was willing to show, and the emotions that were important enough to bother showing.
This one looked like mild, slightly mocking interest; what it actually meant was that she was slightly worried and more than a little exasperated.
Knowing that didn't actually give him a way of answering her that didn't sound ridiculous and petulant, even to him.
Mai came and sat down next to him, the faint scent of firelilies coming with her movements. "It turned out fine," she said, patiently (for Mai). "You got the agreement signed, the harbour will be open by the festival. Everyone's happy. All things considered, it's almost perfect."
Zuko frowned at the water, and at the little turtle-ducklings circling their mother. "Almost isn't good enough," he replied, darkly. "Not when there's a whole kingdom at stake."
Mai took the bread from him. She tore off a few pieces and tossed them to the babies. She was dressed in close-fitting black; she probably just came from working with Piandao.
"You sound like your sister, you know," she said, finally.
Zuko stared at her, hand arrested halfway through the act of throwing. She returned the look blandly and said, "Well. You do. 'Almost perfect isn't good enough.'"
Her imitation of Azula was eerily accurate. Then again, Zuko supposed, she'd've spent a lot of time listening to the original. He opened his mouth to say . . . something, and then realized he didn't have an answer to that.
"It was like a mantra," she said, throwing the last of her handful of bread. She said it as if she was just commenting, mentioning. She reached over and pushed his chin up. "Close your mouth, Zuko. You look like a panting rhino. And stop sulking over here. The turtle-ducks are going to get fat."
She stood up and extended a slightly insistent hand. After a minute, Zuko took it and let her pull him to his feet.
Chapter 4: political necessities ignored (Zuko and Mai)
On the subject of his marriage, the new Fire Lord was . . . intractable. And uncommunicative.
He was, in general, willing to listen to reason and to discuss the finer points of action. Where there were strong disagreements his will, of course, carried the day as was appropriate for the Fire Lord. But he seemed to have a strangely keen grip of political necessity, given his background, and that usually carried the day as well.
But when the subject of marriage came up, the conversation ended, and those who felt the need to try to continue it found themselves the target of an increasingly narrow-eyed stare. Given that one of the Fire Lord's eyes was a mere slit to begin with, and given his previously-famed temper, this was usually sufficient to end any attempt to press the topic.
On the rare occasion that this was not so, the growled, "Enough!" silenced even the pushiest.
It was simply not a topic he was willing to discuss.
His liaison continued, but continued in private. Opinion was split on Mai: depending on whom one spoke to, her connection to Azula, her betrayal of Azula, her father's failure at New Ozai (now, of course, returned to it's Earth Kingdom name of Omashu), her father's rank and closeness to Ozai - all of these things counted either for or against her, according to the way in which each saw the past and the future.
The Fire Lord, in face of all tradition and ordinary convention, seemed to feel that all of them were irrelevant.
For her own part, the young lady had anyone who bothered her about it bodily thrown out of her house or, if they bothered her about it in public, walked away and ignored them. But she had become a staple presence at almost any council at all, and certainly at any military one.
Chapter 5: unwanted questions (Mai, Zuko)
Zuko finds Mai in her own suite, in the room she made over into a private dojo, brutally murdering a sparring dummy. The poor stuffed thing didn't have half a chance, and was going to have to be replaced. Probably long before Mai worked out whatever it was that had made her so angry.
It struck Zuko that that was kind of a Sokka-ish thought, but Sokka was kind of like an infection sometimes, so it was probably inevitable.
Zuko stepped into the room and slid the door closed again, just in time to catch the dummy's head as Mai decapitated it with a particularly savage kick.
" . . . do I want to know?" Zuko asked, cautiously but, admittedly, with one eyebrow raised. Mai wasn't usually this hard on her own things. She sort of saw it as crude overkill.
"If one more person," Mai snarled, taking off one of the dummy's arms with her next kick, "just one more person asks me when I'm going to get pregnant - " and a trail of darts impaled the dummy from what, on a human, would have been groin to heart, " - I'm going to have them dropped in the Crescent Island volcano." And with one final side kick, the dummy topped over, completely broken and defeated. Mai stood, and glared at Zuko. "And it had better not be you."
Zuko blinked at that for a moment before his brain caught back up. "Not likely," he said, very definitely, suppressing the twinge of panic at the idea of Mai having a baby and all that would mean. He frowned. "Who - ?" he started.
"Your mother," Mai spat, giving the dummy one last savage and completely technique-less kick in the side.
"Oh," Zuko said, and then, tucking the dummy's head under one arm, put his hand to his face. "Oh," he said, sighing. Well. That explained the dummy. Mai seemed to have a policy of not yelling at Zuko's mother. He appreciated that, but it sometimes made things a bit exciting when they clashed. "I'll talk to her," he assured Mai, tossing her the dummy's head.
"You do that," she replied, but some of the heat had gone out. She caught the head, glared at it, and then dropped it on top of the body. Then she asked, in a more ordinary voice, "How did the meeting with Admiral Jinse go?"
Zuko felt his lip curl. "Don't ask," he said, sourly and short. "I think I need some tea."