Title: Sozin's Bay
Characters: Mai, Zuko, Iroh Pairings: Mai/Zuko
Word Count: ~28,000, sixteen parts. Prologue: ~3,000.
Summary: Mai and Zuko run into each other in the colonies. She's accompanying her father on a business trip. He's having his ship outfitted for a voyage to the South Pole in search of the Avatar. This chance encounter stirs up long dormant feelings and leaves both of them wondering if they'll ever see each other again.
Notes: Well, I finished the rough draft of this around Christmas and am finally ready to post. The beta reading/editing process took longer than I expected (although there were stretches of time when I didn't work on it at all). It's sixteen parts (fifteen chapters plus prologue). I plan to get everything up within a month or so.
Many thanks to zerawolfe7 for beta reading!
Mai stood at her bedroom window watching a flock of fire sparrows wheel around the royal palace in the rapidly fading sunlight. She hoped Zuko would get her letter. She had no idea where he was, so she was counting on the hawk being directed properly at the Fire Nation communications towers. She knew her message could take weeks to reach his ship. But the letter was addressed to Zuko's uncle, who was not banished, and she knew the communications officers would make every effort to see that the Fire Lord's brother got his mail.
She hoped General Iroh would not be too confused, or angry. She was counting on him to give Zuko the letter and not burn it or, worse, tell anyone else about it. He would have to open it to know it wasn't for him, since she had not dared to leave any clue that it wasn't on the outside. The scroll bore a ribbon from the Ministry of Colonial Affairs, where her father worked, and a 'confidential' seal, from her father's own desk. Mai had accepted the probability of Zuko's uncle reading her words and thinking she was an extremely silly love-struck girl. She didn't care what he thought of her, as long as he passed her message on. She had only met the General a handful of times, but she knew he and his nephew were close. She hoped they were close enough that the man would be willing to do this favor for the boy.
The sun set and the cloud of birds dissipated on the wind. She sighed. Her plan to send the letter from her father's office--her least risky option--had gone smoothly. She couldn't send it from home because her mother had tasked the family servants with watching her in case she decided to do anything stupid (like send a banished prince a letter telling him she loved him). Every time she glanced over her shoulder, she spotted one of them spying on her. Ty Lee might have been willing to send the letter for her, but Ty Lee would not be able to keep quiet about it. She visited her father's office sometimes to deliver messages from her mother, or when she was exceptionally bored, and the workers there knew her. No one paid any attention when she walked in after school because she was the Deputy Chancellor's quiet, well-behaved daughter. She exchanged greetings with her father and sat watching the activity in the courtyard below the window until he left his office briefly. Within one minute the letter was prepared and sitting inconspicuously in a tall stack of scrolls waiting to be sent. The Ministry sent and received such a large quantity of mail every day--some of it oddly marked, coming from far-flung colonies with irregular mail systems--that she doubted anyone would notice it.
She was calculating how long she should wait before getting her hopes up for a reply when the door to her room opened. Without looking, Mai knew it was her mother and knew she was angry. A maid would have knocked first. Usually, her mother would have too. She turned toward the door and her heart sank heavily. Her mother clutched a wrinkled scroll in her hands.
Her mother unfurled the scroll and pointed an accusing finger, although her voice was steady. "You thought you wouldn't get caught, did you? It was a clever plan. But I asked your father's secretary to monitor all the correspondence at his office."
Mai didn't deny anything, but cursed herself for not expecting this. She thought her father's workplace was free of her mother's influence, but she was wrong. When her mother was determined to do something or, more often, keep Mai from doing something, there was no stopping the woman.
Her mother continued with exasperation. "You know you can't write to him. You may not care about anything, but you're not the only one who could suffer for this. We could all be in trouble because of your actions. If the Fire Lord found out about this, your father could lose everything he's worked so hard for his entire life. He could lose his position. We could lose our home! Did you think about that? Do you think everyone has a life like this?"
Mai stifled a yawn. Here was the part where her mother reminded her that the family was rich. Her mother's own upbringing had been cursed with the combination of noble lineage and no money. Her mother's father ruined the family's fortune through a series of bad business investments and they lost everything--their land, their house, their priceless family heirlooms--except their aristocratic attitude.
Her mother went on. "We are among the lucky few. Of course you wouldn't know any better. You're spoiled, Mai, and selfish. You don't know what it's like for most people, struggling to survive. Well, I know. We have to protect what we have. We've all had to make sacrifices in this family and you have to learn that you do too. I can't believe you're ready to ruin your family--your family, the only one you'll ever have--for the sake of a silly crush."
Mai narrowed her eyes. People could say a lot of things about her and she didn't care, but that comment made her angry. "It's not silly," she said.
Her mother said sharply, "You are thirteen years old, Mai. You think you love that boy but you don't. You don't know anything about love."
Mai sat down on her bed. A lump swelled in her throat and she willed the nascent tears away. She knew from long experience that crying would only make her mother angrier. She said, "I'm not feeling well. I'd like to lie down."
Her mother sighed and continued in a slightly softened tone, "Listen, it may seem like the end of the world now, but it's not. There are plenty of other boys out there. I know, they aren't princes." There was a pause, but Mai didn't speak. "I admit, this is partly my fault. I was overwhelmed by the Fire Lord's son noticing you when he could have any girl he wants. I guess I pushed you toward him too hard. I just didn't expect you to get so attached. I thought you knew better than to let your feelings get out of control like this."
Mai's eyes widened and she almost laughed. Her mother really thought her relationship with Zuko was social climbing. The woman did not understand her or Zuko or what had happened at all. And she was deluded if she thought Mai would ever kiss a boy just because he was supposed to be a good catch.
Her mother came and stood next to the bed. "But prince or not, he's not worth putting yourself--and your family--at risk." She looked Mai up and down, evaluating, and smiled a little. "You know, you can get yourself a very fine young man if you try. You just need to be a little more upbeat, more of a people person. Maybe stop wearing such dark clothes. You'll have another boyfriend before you know it. Trust me."
Mai just barely bit back her response: If Dad disappeared tomorrow, would you have another husband before you knew it? Her mother probably would. She loved her husband, but she loved the lifestyle he could provide for her much more. There were other rich men who could give her that. Of course she didn't think that losing a particular boy should matter this much to Mai.
Her mother held up the letter and said, "Mai, please understand, I can't let you do this. I promise you, if you try to contact him again, I will find out about it. And I will do what I have to do to keep this entire family safe."
"And what would that be, if I may ask?"
"I will send you away."
Mai sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. Her mother didn't need to say where--she meant the infamous Black Sand Island School for Wayward Youth, the Boiling Rock for juvenile delinquents.
Her mother added, "You don't appreciate it now, but this is for your protection too." She turned back toward the door. "Dinner will be served soon."
"I'm not hungry."
Her mother started to protest, but changed her mind. "All right. I'll tell your father you're not feeling well." At the door, she stopped and said, "I don't want things to come to that, Mai. Please don't push me." And she left.
Mai glanced back to the window, but she didn't want to look at the lights of the royal palace, red and gold against the night sky. A thought flashed in her mind that perhaps her uncle would help her--she had always been his favorite. Perhaps he would be willing to send a letter to General Iroh for her. She frowned, rejecting the plan. He would not help her break the terms of a banishment.
She drew her favorite dagger out of her sleeve, flicking the three pointed blade open and shut in a rhythmic pattern several times before flinging it at the wall. Tears welled in her vision and she pressed the heels of her palms to her eyes. Her anger at her mother was eclipsed by her anger at herself. She knew she didn't have the courage to try to contact Zuko again. She was too afraid of what would happen to her if she did.
Zuko paced the deck of the ship. It would be a week before he reached land near the Eastern Air Temple and another week at least before he arrived at the Temple itself. The search of the Western Temple yielded no information about the Avatar's identity. The Fire Nation force that attacked the Air Nomads there destroyed the temple library, but he found a few scrolls scattered throughout the buildings. One was a history of the life of Avatar Yangchen, but he wasn't looking for her. Another was a collection of haiku about leaves--swirling leaves, falling leaves, budding leaves--which was supposed to be some kind of meditation on life, but only left him with an urge to burn leaves. There was also a list of pie recipes, which attracted his uncle's interest. There were other odd, trivial things as well, none of which had the faintest connection to the Avatar.
He wished he could practice bending, but his burn was still too fresh. He had attempted to fire bend earlier and almost passed out from the flare of pain in his wound before he even managed a spark. It seemed like his face hurt more every day. He knew the reasons why--the nerves were regenerating, the chi flowing in the area again--but it still seemed wrong in a visceral way. Wounds were supposed to hurt less with time, not more. He worked some with his swords, but he got tired so quickly he couldn't do much. He had trouble sleeping, sometimes waking up more tired than he was when he went to bed.
Zuko hated having nothing to do but wait. He kept his hands behind his back to stop himself from clawing at the constant itch gnawing at the edges of the wound. Generous slathers of soothing ointment lessened but did not stop the need to scratch the healing skin. The pain was bad, but he could at least distance himself from it in his mind. The itching was maddening because it demanded interaction.
A brisk wind blew against his face, cooling the side not covered by the bandage. He stopped pacing to look through the telescope at a tiny island in the distance, so small it didn't even have trees. A flock of tern-gulls circled it. He scanned the gray rocks, searching for signs of life. All he could see were fish trapped in small pools of water, easy prey for the birds, and some slimy-looking brown algae. He turned away from the telescope, gripping the railing. His uncle came to stand by him.
"We've had two hawks today, Prince Zuko."
"Anything about the Avatar?" His uncle knew a rare scroll dealer on Whale Tail Island who promised to send copies of whatever she could find on the Avatar to the ship. None of what they'd received so far held any clues about the last Avatar. The Air Nomads had kept their secret well.
His uncle perused the new post and said, "I'm afraid not," although he didn't sound sorry. He read through the scrolls, then rolled them back up and stowed them in his pockets. Zuko didn't ask what was in the letters. If either of them concerned him, the ship, or the Avatar, Iroh would give them to him to read. His uncle knew people all over the world and got a surprisingly large quantity of personal mail, most of which seemed to be about pai sho. He had several games by post going. Zuko couldn't imagine pai sho being more boring, but having to wait days or even weeks to make a move would do it.
His uncle said, "I have been meaning to ask you something, Nephew."
"I wondered if you wished to send letters to anyone at home."
Zuko frowned and gripped the railing tighter. "You know I can't."
Iroh smiled slyly. "But I can."
He crossed his arms and turned to his uncle, wondering why the man was bringing this up. He had enough on his mind, trying to figure out how to track someone who'd been missing for a hundred years, without a name or even a face to guide him. When he was able to fire bend again, he had a lot of work to do to catch up in his training. He didn't have time to waste sending clandestine letters to people, like a character in some ridiculous melodrama.
"I can't break the terms of banishment," he answered. "I don't have anything to say to anyone back home anyway." He certainly had nothing to say to his sister, and his father wanted to hear nothing from him except I have found the Avatar. There was only one person he would consider writing to, and he had sworn he wouldn't think about her anymore. Mai would forget him soon enough--she would certainly forget him before he forgot her. She had her entire life still in the capital city: family and school and friends. He had nothing but the quest for the Avatar.
His uncle paused. "Are you certain?"
His uncle looked saddened by that statement, and Zuko turned away. Writing to Mai would not do either of them any good. If she missed him, he couldn't promise her he would come home. If her parents found out she was communicating with him, she would be punished. If his father found out, her entire family could be punished. She most likely did not miss him and did not want to hear from him. Of course she would know by now what had happened--the entire shameful story. He was just glad she hadn't been there to see it.
She was lucky that they had never been formally recognized as being in a relationship. They were together for such a short time before his banishment that most people at court did not even know she was his girlfriend. He wasn't entirely sure his father knew. He never told his father, and if Azula or a servant reported it, he never heard about it. His father was always so busy with the war, sometimes family matters slipped by unnoticed or at least unremarked. But he felt Mai would be spared any stigma from associating with him. She was at least still in his sister's favor, as far as he knew, and that would make life much easier for her.
His uncle said, "The offer stands, if you change your mind."
He looked through the telescope again, but there was nothing to see except the vast ocean. He was angry at his uncle for distracting him and angry at himself for being so easily distracted. He had to stop thinking about the past and focus on his mission. It was a sign of weakness, pining for things that were lost. That was why he was in this situation. He had been weak, letting his feelings get the better of him, and he compounded his failure by acting disrespectfully in his father's presence. He would suffer for his mistakes, but it would be for the best in the end. His father had the fate of the entire Fire Nation to think about and could afford mercy for no one, not even his son. If Zuko was not good enough to be the next Fire Lord, then his father had to fix him or let him die. He wanted to be fixed, to prove he was worthy to his father and to the country. He could not allow anything to interfere with his hunt for the Avatar, especially not his own treacherous feelings. His duty to the Fire Lord and the Fire Nation came before anything else: friends, family, love. Regaining his honor was all that mattered--everything else was a ghost from the past.
His uncle walked around to his other side and continued the conversation. "Tonight the cook is trying one of the pie recipes we found. It took him a while to figure out how to mix the filling without air bending."
He pulled away from the telescope, scowling, and replied, "I don't need pie. I need to find the Avatar."
"Perhaps by partaking of the food of the Air Nomads, inspiration will come to you as to the Avatar's location."
Zuko winced at that comment. "If there's anyone here who would be inspired by food, it's you." Iroh grinned. Zuko folded his arms over his chest. "There has to be something at the Air Temples. Something that was overlooked in the previous searches."
His uncle said nothing. The two of them stood at the railing watching the sun descend. When he found the Avatar--and he would--he would have his honor back, have his home and his throne and his father back, but there were some things he'd lost that even finding the Avatar would not restore.
Chapter One: Business Trip
- Sozin's Bay: Prologue -- Letters