Spawn fic written around fanart. It does not get nerdier.
"Roku, please explain."
"She's a liar, Mother. And she was calling me Sparky." Her son's face was screwed up in an impressive scowl.
"I wasn't lying."
"Kara," Mai said sternly. The girl nodded and went quiet. Mai turned back to her son, who flinched at the look she gave him.
"I didn't mean to! I swear! She just made me really mad and then practically dared me."
"So you thought you'd attack her with fire?"
"She's okay," Roku argued lamely.
"That doesn't count for much, Roku. You can't expect everyone who makes you mad to be able to defend themselves that well." Mai caught Kara's smug little grin and rounded on her as well. "And you should know better than to pick on firebenders who haven't mastered their tempers."
"It's been a few years. I would have thought he'd matured a little by now."
Roku gaped at her and looked to Mai for assistance.
"You bring out that side of him," Mai said to her coldly. It was enough to wipe the smirk off of her face. It was Roku's turn to look smug, so Mai turned to him. "That's no excuse, Roku. Frankly, you're lucky to be alive with both of your eyebrows intact; she went easy on you."
"What?!... I... That... I could have taken her!" Roku insisted.
"Your father and I both respect your pride, Roku, but she's been training her whole life, and with better firebenders than you." Before continuing, Mai shot Kara a quick glance to make sure she still looked humble. "You will learn to control your temper, Roku, even around those that take some pathetic delight in kindling it, and in the meantime, you will return to studying firebending theory rather than practice."
Roku was near tears. "But... she's... she's a liar! You wouldn't believe what she was saying about you and Father!"
Mai arched an eyebrow, and Roku continued.
"She said you two were in prison!"
"They were. Our dads went there and rescued my mom and my grandpa. I've heard this story dozens of times, Sp... Roku."
"Do you even listen to yourself?!"
Mai and Zuko knew this day would come. They'd hoped it would wait until Roku's lessons reached more contemporary history, because by then he might be old enough to understand. She hated the girl a little for raising these questions now, when Roku still saw his parents, his father especially, as infallible heroes.
"Mother?" Mai realized her silence had been long and incriminating. "It's... it's not true, right?"
"You are both to go to your rooms. Kara, I will be with you shortly. Roku... your father and I will come to talk to you about this a little later, all right?" The two nodded. Mai watched them leave, then hurried into the hall to find Zuko.
Much of Zuko's day consisted of meetings with various advisors in various rooms of the palace; he had found the day endlessly dull if he were to spend it all glaring at people from behind a wall of fire, and now used the throne room as sparingly as possible. Much of Mai's day consisted of tracking him; she had perfected the art of happening upon him in the hallways between meetings.
She slowed her pace slightly as she heard Zuko and his attendants behind her. She lowered her arm, allowing Zuko's hand to slide comfortably into her own. They exchanged subtle smiles.
Mai gave Zuko's hand a small squeeze. "Roku's asking questions about... before. The prison." She looked at him significantly. "We're going to need to explain things."
Zuko sighed and nodded. "Would this have anything to do with the Princess and a certain firebending incident?"
"Word travels quickly."
"I wish her parents thought the consequences through a little better before telling her things." He shook his head. "But I guess it would be foolish to expect them to start now."
"Indeed," Mai smiled crookedly. "Though I suppose we should have seen this coming. We forget that for them, the prison is a romantic story."
Zuko squeezed her hand. After all this time, he still felt guilty.
"I like our story the way it is," she assured him. "I should go. I'll find you when you're free to speak to Roku with me."
"I'm not sure when that will be, to be honest," Zuko sighed.
"That's all right. I am."
"Your parents spoke to me about their wishes... your wishes... before they left." Mai eyed the girl. She had decided to stay here, of all places, while her parents visited the South Pole. Mai knew she had done it to bring up the subject herself. "I'm not sure they realized what they'd brought up, but I could figure it out. This was not a good start, Kara."
"I know." At least she sounded genuinely sorry.
"My first object is to raise my son to be a good prince. If you hinder me, I will not tolerate your presence here."
The girl nodded. She looked down at her hands.
"The only way I will agree to foster you is if you prove to me that you will be a good influence on my son and not make my life needlessly difficult." Mai softened her tone before continuing. "There's no doubt that you would be a model pupil, and you have potential. I should like to accept you."
"I apologize. It was childish to provoke him."
Mai nodded. "What did you tell him about his father and myself?"
"That you were there, at the prison. He didn't believe me that you were good with throwing knives."
Mai sighed, but gave the girl a little credit for not immediately telling her son about the times that Mai had fought against Suki and Sokka, instead choosing to relate the time she helped to rescue them.
"That was it, though. And I swear, I thought he knew about you with the knives. I thought that was why he was making fun of me learning to use my mother's fans." Kara bowed her head.
"I hope you realize what you've started here."
"You're going to talk to Roku about your pasts, and he might not be ready to understand." At least she was clever enough to figure that out.
"In that case, he might seek you out, or at any rate be more inclined towards your company than that of anyone else. Make yourself available if he needs to talk to anyone, and don't make things worse."
Kara nodded, then added, "Again, I'm sorry."
"I know your parents, so I'll try to be patient with you here, but you need to learn to be less reckless with the consequences of your actions, socially, at least, if you are to survive here with me."
"So she was telling the truth?!" Roku looked almost sick at the thought.
"Well, yes. But it was more complicated than that..." Zuko started to explain.
Roku looked to his father desperately. "But you didn't leave mother there, right? That part can't be true."
"I only locked her in the cell to keep her safe from the riot," Zuko said calmly.
"You locked her in a cell?!" Roku was far from calmed. He gaped at his parents.
"I..." Zuko looked to Mai for help.
She sighed. "It's a long story, Roku. Your father's side especially..."
"Is it true about you and the knives, too?" Roku interrupted.
Mai removed a few of them from her sleeve to show him. Though she didn't carry as many as she used to, it was still a habit she hadn't bothered to break.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"We would have liked to wait until you were older before discussing parts of this with you. Our side of things gets a little... complicated," Mai tried to explain.
Roku's eyes widened. "You two... you were both... good guys... right?"
The look they exchanged was enough; Roku looked like he wanted to bolt from the room.
"But... you're good guys! You're friends with her parents! You're friends with the Avatar! You helped them win!"
"That's true," Zuko said, trying to be a calm and patient foil against his son.
"You... did you ever... fight against them?" Roku clearly didn't even want to ask the question.
"We did," Zuko admitted.
"But... how can you be on both sides?"
"It's not always good guys and bad guys, Roku. Like today when you attacked Kara... that doesn't make you a bad guy."
"That's different! That's not... It was the Avatar! How could you do that?!" Roku shoved his father away and ran from the room. Mai exchanged an understanding look with Zuko before slipping out silently to follow their son.
He was already up the tree when she spotted him; he knew neither of his parents would chase him up there. Mai waited in the shadows, patient and silent as ever, for when he might come down.
"Can I join you?" Kara was under the tree, looking up at Roku.
"I don't know. Can you, in that dress?" He shouldn't have challenged her; she was sitting demurely on a branch next to him in seconds.
"My mother's always trained me to fight in a dress," she explained casually. "She says if I can learn to do that, everything else will be easy."
"I'll be sure to keep that in mind."
Kara absently practiced a few moves with her fan. "What's wrong?"
Ruko glared at her. "You wouldn't understand."
"Is it about your parents?"
Roku scowled at the ground, then mumbled, "They were bad guys."
Kara just shrugged. "The Fire Nation was different then. When they were good guys, they were traitors."
"But what? It was complicated."
"You all keep saying that, but that doesn't justify anything."
Kara contemplated him. "You ought to read more about your father's history... I'll find you a few scrolls. It should make things clearer."
"I just don't know..."
"Everyone else can forgive them. They may have fought my parents a couple times, but they also saved them. And if you read about what the Fire Nation was like before they took over... they've done a lot of good, Roku. You should be proud of them."
"I was." The tone was enough to break Mai's heart a little.
"Destiny's a funny thing; your dad's journey was pretty crazy."
Roku narrowed his eyes. "Why do you know more about this than I do?"
"I was curious."
She just nodded.
"Is that why you're here? To study them or something?"
"It's part of it," she said without hesitation. "Another part is that I'm not terribly interested in going to the South Pole again." Roku rolled his eyes. "And then... well, I like it here."
Roku stared at her a moment before declaring, "You're weird."
Kara just shrugged and leapt gracefully out of the tree. Roku waited until she was out of sight before making his own clumsy descent.
Still in the shadows, Mai secretly saw Roku back to his room, then went to find Zuko and, one way or another, assuage his guilt.
"Really, Lady Mai, it was an accident. Or if anyone needs to be blamed, it's me," Kara was insisting. "I was looking to practice with my fans and basically insisted."
Mai sighed. She wondered if when things were openly hostile between the children, they might have been better. Since Kara had taken it upon herself to educate Roku about his parents, as he was then still avoiding speaking seriously with Mai and Zuko, the two had seemed to get along well, though clearly not without consequences. Mai eyed Kara's singed hem. "Your dress is ruined. You had better go change."
The girl nodded and quietly left the room. Mai turned to her son, who immediately winced.
"I didn't mean to! Really, this time!"
"We were wrong to let you proceed so quickly with your firebending training. I'll have a word with your master, and you'll return to theoretical exercises."
"The candles again? But that's so stupid!"
"You need to learn to control yourself, Roku. I think it might be a good idea to bring in someone who will be able to watch you both... in a manner of speaking."
Roku's face fell. "You can't..."
"At this rate, Roku, it's only a matter of time before one of you seriously injures the other. Besides, your father and I will be needing to leave soon. I would feel better if Toph were here with you both."
"But..." Roku seemed overwhelmed with the protests he wanted to make. "She's blind! And she's a bad influence! And she calls me 'Sparky'!" He took another tactic. "Why do both of you have to leave? You could stay! We'll be good!" When that didn't seem to have an effect, "But why can't you have someone else come, like Katara! She's nice and she'd be able to fix us if we got hurt!... And we wouldn't, I swear!"
Mai's face remained impassive.
"Please don't leave me alone with them!"
"Are you finished?"
Roku groaned, but nodded.
"Toph is a good friend, Roku, and we owe her a lot. That includes our respect." He nodded, however reluctantly. "As a prince, you cannot be so picky about your company. You must be hospitable and respectful, and if I get reports that you were anything but, I'll take away the candles, too, and you'll just have to read about firebending for awhile."
Roku began to protest, then stoically nodded.
Though considerably more quiet than usual, Roku seemed composed during the days leading up to Mai and Zuko's departure, even including Toph's arrival. Toph did bring letters for him from his grandmother and great-uncle, which might explain his self control; he was generally quick to heed their advice, thinking both of them omniscient and unerring, and Ursa's lifelong absence only served to make her seem more god-like to Roku. Mai wasn't sure he was entirely wrong, either, and she was always grateful that their letters seemed to calm and steady her son. But even that did not fully explain his recent transformation, and Mai had the vague suspicion that Roku thought she had only been threatening him, and if he were well-behaved enough, she would not, in fact, leave him with Kara and Toph. She wondered how quickly this princely demeanor would fall apart in her absence.
Mai was overseeing the packing when she spotted Roku in the doorway.
"I'm sorry I called you bad guys," he said quietly.
"I know." Mai extended an arm and coaxed Roku to her side.
"Did Ozai really... do that... to Father's face?" Roku practically whispered it.
It had never occurred to Mai that they had neglected to tell him about Zuko's scar. She nodded. "You've been reading, I take it?"
He ignored her question. "Were you there?"
Mai shook her head. Though she had always regretted not being able to see Zuko off, she was at least a little relieved she had been spared witnessing any of it. She did, however, clearly remember Azula telling her of Zuko's disgrace, watching Mai's face intently, sadistically, for any hint of betrayed emotion. She shuddered lightly at the thought.
She was brought back as Roku's hand crept carefully up her sleeve, removing one of the blades stored there. "Will you show me, sometime? What you can do?" He asked, looking at the blade.
"Perhaps." Mai had to smile slightly.
"Kara says her dad is still a little scared of you." He sounded proud. "She wants you to teach her."
That was not something Mai needed, though she reminded herself she was around Kara's age when she began learning. Mai wondered how she had ever gotten away with it. "I'll show you sometime. Kara may have to wait." That pleased him.
His grin morphed into a contemplative frown. "There isn't a lot about you in what I'm reading, before you married Father."
She understood his unasked question, but wasn't sure how to answer. How could she explain her alliance with Azula? That her hunt of the Avatar was largely to stave off boredom?
Roku was scrutinizing her face, fruitlessly. "It really was choosing between being a hero for doing the wrong thing, and being a traitor for doing good, wasn't it?"
"More or less." That was a hard time to think about.
"What made you decide to be a traitor?"
"Your father," Mai answered without hesitation. "I realized I would follow him anywhere."
It wasn't a hero's answer, but it seemed to satisfy Roku well enough.
"So Roku's been reading, huh?" For at least the length of their flight to the Southern Air Temple, Mai and Zuko had been granted a rare stretch of privacy. Zuko was especially grateful that this allowed for uncensored conversation; he got impatient with Mai's habit of talking around things.
"He spoke with you, too, then?" Mai was observing their relatively unremarkable view of clouds and ocean.
Zuko joined her. "Yeah. He seems to have forgiven me for being a bad guy."
"You were never that bad, really."
Zuko smiled weakly, not believing Mai's words, but appreciating them nevertheless. "Think he'll be okay?"
"I sent for Iroh and Tom-Tom. They would cheer him up." Roku had always idolized both of them. "Especially since I don't know how long this will take."
Zuko nodded. It was not rare to be attending these summits with Aang and other world leaders, but they usually irritated Zuko to no end; he had only so much patience for diplomacy and the way any goals of these things seemed to politely wait until the last possible minute to make themselves known.
Mai put a hand on his shoulder. It was generally her purpose to keep Zuko's frustration from affecting his temper, and in that she was skilled. "Your mother's going to be here."
"Really? Why didn't you tell me?"
Mai just shrugged. "I guess Aang invited her. She's not a representative... officially she is just there to serve tea... and it would probably be best if no one knew for certain who she really was."
"But... why was she invited?"
"You know how she is." Zuko, of all people, seemed so hesitant to fully acknowledge his mother's manipulative tendencies. "She's there to do what she can to keep things moving and help Aang's agenda along. So it would be best if no one had any idea what she was trying to do, and, if they figure it out, no reason to suspect that she's your mother. You can see how that would look."
"That's not to say we won't be able to arrange some time together, just that you need to be conscious of how it might appear..."
"I understand, Mai," Zuko said. "I just don't understand what could be so important to bring her out here... for her to risk it." He looked sharply at Mai, hoping to divine whether or not she had the answers.
Mai's face was as expressionless as ever. "I could only guess, Zuko."
With a stony stare, Zuko prompted her to do just that.
She sighed before continuing, "You've been doing too well. The Fire Nation has recovered too quickly for their comfort. And now that you have a legacy, they are getting concerned that you might break your promises and take over the world again."
Zuko groaned. "I can't do anything right, can I?"
"It always depends on who you ask, and when."
"What will they want?"
"It's just conjecture, but... probably money. A lot of it. It would weaken us and strengthen them."
"And the amount?"
"Negotiable, I suppose. That's probably why we're here."
Zuko looked resigned. "If Aang asked Mother here... that's probably for the best. I just wish there were some way I could prove to them, once and for all..." he trailed off.
Mai nodded, taking Zuko's hand. She knew the one thing he hated most about being Fire Lord was being treated as though he were his father; always on his own side of the table, the rest of the world against him. The least she could do was stand beside him on their side until things leveled out, if they ever did. "Remember, you don't need to give in to all of their demands. They'll try to convince you that you're no better than your predecessors unless you do..."
"I remember." Zuko's first years had been just that.
"But there are alternatives. And unless their first offer is remarkably fair..."
Zuko laughed dryly.
"... We'll find an alternative." Mai squeezed his hand.
He looked at her gratefully. "I'm sorry I was short with you..."
"It's fine, Zuko." Mai brushed his cheek. "You can't be this soft in there... consider it practice."
"So how is Roku?" Ursa asked cheerfully, setting up the tea service for Mai, Zuko, and herself. Zuko moved to help her, but she lightly slapped his hand away.
"He must have waited a whole day after we left to send this..." Mai was perusing her son's letter. "A new record, I imagine..." she trailed off, furrowing her brow.
"What's wrong?" Zuko asked, expecting only the worst to elicit a facial expression from her. Even Ursa had looked up sharply from her work.
"It's not serious, just... I made a mistake." She finished the letter and passed it to Ursa, a finger pointing out the relevant passage.
Ursa's concerned expression morphed into a fond smile. "Oh, Roku."
Zuko scowled. "What is it?"
"Tom-Tom." Mai explained, "He must have arrived shortly after we left. I had hoped his being there would cheer Roku up and distract him from Toph and Kara..."
"Right," Zuko nodded.
Mai and Ursa exchanged a quick look. "Well, I miscalculated. It seems that Tom-Tom was the one distracted."
Zuko shook his head, uncomprehending, before his mother passed him the letter.
"She is quite a beauty," Ursa conceded.
"And mature for her age... usually," Mai added. "I suppose I had forgotten that they hadn't seen each other in years."
"Oh!" Zuko caught on. "That's rough to lose his friend to a girl. Especially to Kara."
"I'm not entirely sure he's upset about losing Tom-Tom, Zuko." Ursa passed him his tea.
"I may have to write to Tom-Tom. He's probably just not aware," Mai sighed.
"Wait... why is that necessary? They're kids. Roku will get over it."
Mai and Ursa exchanged another look.
"...What?" Zuko asked hesitantly, eying them both.
"Well, Kara has a lot of potential, Zuko," Mai began to explain.
"And it's obvious that she's been a generally good influence on Roku," Ursa continued.
"NO." Zuko stood. "Both of you... stop. They're kids!"
"Precisely," Mai said patiently. "Look, it isn't as though we're putting anything in writing just yet, but while we can, we're just guiding them..."
"No!" Zuko persisted. "Mai, I'm surprised, given how upset you got with my Mother for doing this... and Mother... I would have thought you'd have gotten your fix with Toph and Mai and me... But this?! You should both be ashamed."
"Zuko," Ursa began soothingly.
"No... it's insane! I haven't said anything in years, with both of you treating me like a puppet, but I will draw the line here. It's my son's life, and he deserves to live it and fall in love on his own terms, and I will not stand by and watch you both pull the strings!"
Mai shot a look to Ursa, who was looking intently at Zuko.
Zuko's face fell. "No..."
"You understand, Mai was a very promising young lady, even at an early age," Ursa said patiently.
Zuko turned to Mai. "You knew?!"
Mai was slightly hesitant and answered softly, "Not the whole time, obviously. Not until after you had been banished, and by then, unofficial as it was, it had been dissolved." Mai glanced at Ursa. "Mostly."
Zuko seated himself again.
"Why are you so upset?" Mai asked dryly. "Do you have any complaints?"
Zuko shook his head. "I just thought I did this one thing. I thought I had some element of control over my own life." It was exceptionally bitter, even for Zuko.
"You did," Ursa smiled, reaching over to squeeze his hand. "You both did. It was just something the rest of us noticed and encouraged. That's all." His mother smiled. "You were about as subtle as Roku, after all. He is very much your son."
"Zuko, as much as I'd love to send Roku out into the world to find and choose whoever he wants, he's still a prince, and will one day be Fire Lord. You want to tell me that you think just anyone can be Fire Lady?" Mai raised an eyebrow.
"Well, no, but..."
"If he does find someone else he prefers that would be suitable, I won't stand in his way, Zuko. But I don't see any other contenders, so I'm working with what he's given me."
Zuko gaped. "So that's why you're going to foster her?!"
Mai rolled her eyes, but remained calm and even. "Of course it is. I need to make sure Roku's choice is equipped for the job."
Ursa watched Mai approvingly, smiling slightly.
Zuko's wrinkled his brow. "But if... if Roku does find someone else, what happens to Kara?"
"Why? What would you like to see happen?" Ursa asked, at least sounding curious.
"Well... I guess I did kind of figure that they might..." He noticed the satisfied smirks on his wife and mother. "But let me be absolutely clear: I do not condone all of this... plotting."
"Oh, Zuko," his mother sighed.
"No... don't... How can you not see how ridiculous this is? Have you even talked to Suki about this? They want Kara to be a warrior!"
Mai arched an eyebrow. "How is that any different from me plotting Roku's future?"
Zuko sputtered before managing to say, "She's not our daughter, Mai! We don't have the right to plan her future, too!"
"She's the one who wanted me to foster her," Mai said dismissively.
"Don't give me that! It's because you did that... that thing you and Mother can do where you make people think they want what you want them to want!" Zuko accused her. "It's eerie and wrong."
Mai narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you upset that we've been planning this, or that we haven't included you until now?"
Zuko's hesitation, indignant though it was, was answer enough.
"Honestly," Mai sighed. "We really haven't done anything. They've been coming together on their own. We've just been paying attention."
"He's not wonderful about concealing his feelings, either," Ursa added, smiling, and producing several of Roku's letters. "He really is your son, Zuko."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Zuko mumbled, mostly rhetorically, as he started perusing his son's letters.
"It's no more manipulative than how we came together, Zuko," Mai said softly, placing a hand on his shoulder.
Zuko gave a vague grunt. Hitting upon a particularly transparent passage of one of the letters, he sighed, "Oh, Roku." He passed the letters back to his mother. "Okay, I grant you that there's clearly some affection on his side, even if he doesn't totally realize it, but what about hers? Especially if she's running around with Tom-Tom?"
"Oh, there's affection."
"It might take a woman to recognize it, Zuko, but it's there," Ursa explained. "She's definitely interested, but he's still a little young. Roku just needs a few years to reach his real potential, and she'll figure it out. Tom-Tom is just fascinatingly worldly at the moment."
Zuko shook his head. "This is ridiculous." He sounded resigned.
"I know." Ursa patted his hand. "These matters usually are."
"Are you okay?" Aang asked cautiously, peeking in on Mai and Zuko.
"I'm fine." Zuko had calmed himself since his outburst. Mai was doing her part, lightly stroking his shoulders to soothe him.
"That was quite the passionate speech in there." Aang seemed to be speaking carefully.
"It was rehearsed," Mai explained. "Ursa felt an explosive storm-off was needed to make a point."
"Not that it was difficult. They just..." Zuko made a few frustrated noises.
"The... uh... breathing smoke was a nice touch." Aang was smiling, but still his eyes still looked concerned.
"How did it go over?" Mai asked, watching Aang's face for clues.
"They were still just pretty shocked when I left. Should I send in... did you want some tea?"
Mai shook her head. "Ursa wanted to stay and watch them. She says that after something like this, they might be a little more malleable."
Aang nodded. "I'm sorry about all of that... all of this..."
"Is there anything you would have us do?" Zuko asked, eager for guidance from someone the world seemed to trust.
"Well, I don't mean... I know you had every right... but... you could apologize to them for the outburst."
"That's a good move," Mai agreed, trying to sound as though that hadn't already been the next phase of Ursa's plan.
Zuko nodded. "When?"
"We can wait for Ursa, I'm sure." Aang shifted slightly. "You're doing really well in there, Zuko. If you were representing any other country..."
"I'm sorry I haven't been able to do more to help... to get them to trust me."
"No, no..." Aang shook his head. "If anything, I'm sorry I haven't been able to do more to help."
Mai tried to keep herself from groaning. "They want to blame someone. It's nothing the two of you have or haven't done. People are going to be bitter for the 100 years of war the Fire Nation put them through. There's nothing that can change that."
"Then what are we doing here?" Zuko sounded genuinely confused, having spent the last couple weeks clinging to the hope that the conclusion of this summit would see the rest of the world embracing him and his nation.
Mai shrugged. "Letting them vent. Hearing their concerns. We'll do what we can, honor the promises we make, but ultimately we're just renting their trust. It will run out, and we'll do this again." Mai avoided Aang's eyes. She hated saying this in his presence. "This is what an era of peace is... doing these summits instead of going to war over it. Blissful, independent coexistence is a fantasy."
Aang seemed deflated; Mai regretted being so harsh, but she was anxious to go home, and that would never happen if they were holding out for a something so unattainable.
"Aang, come back to the Fire Nation with us; it's been ages since you visited. Tell them that you'll be trying to persuade us to be more cooperative; after that, we'll send gifts to the other nations... some passenger airships, perhaps," Mai offered.
"Roku doesn't remember your last visit," Zuko added. "He'd be thrilled to meet you... again."
Aang looked around. Mai knew the rebuilding of the Air Temples had occupied all of his leisure time the past several years, and it wasn't a project he would abandon lightly, even for a short while. "I'd like that," he said finally.
Zuko and Aang grasped arms and smiled, if a little sadly.
"We'll work on wrapping things up here," Mai assured Aang. "Just come whenever you're ready to leave."
Aang nodded, gave them each an encouraging smile, and returned to face the rest of his day.
"How does my mother do that?" Zuko asked incredulously, not for the first time this journey.
Mai shrugged. "I might as well ask you how to firebend."
Zuko seated himself beside Mai and embraced her. "You two are both incredible. I'd never be able to do this without you."
Mai leaned against him, content.
"You're right... Roku will need someone like you." His gaze was adoring. "Do you really think you can turn Kara into that someone?"
"Provided she leaves my brother alone..."
Zuko laughed lightly. Mai had been trying to manage this minor crisis as well as she could, but knowing the parties as she did, she was not able to explicitly ask her brother to stay away from Kara; Tom-Tom enjoyed rebelling against direct orders. So his sister had had to work more slowly and discreetly. Iroh's arrival seemed to have calmed things, as Roku now had company, but irritated letters from their son had continued to arrive. It did seem, however, that between Iroh's mentoring, the mess he was currently in, his temper, and his solitude, Roku's firebending had progressed remarkably; Iroh had written just to say he had never seen anything like it.
"What do Suki and Sokka think of Tom-Tom?" Zuko offered.
"Regardless, do you think that would matter to Kara?"
Zuko frowned. "What about your parents?"
"We could invite them over."
"They're doing their annual tour of the islands. They won't be back for a few weeks yet. It's the only reason Tom-Tom agreed to stay this long in the first place."
"You tried appealing to him about Roku's feelings?" Zuko asked.
"Yes. He never responded and obviously didn't stop seeing Kara. I think he chose not to care."
"Exactly." Mai had to smile.
Roku had spent the last few minutes tightly latched around his mother's waist, expressly forbidding her from ever leaving him again. Mai was attempting to follow Roku's laments while simultaneously listening carefully to the hushed conversation on the other side of the room.
"No..." Zuko was saying, looking suspiciously between his uncle and his son.
"He hasn't technically produced lightning...yet... but he's produced sparks," Iroh couldn't hide how impressed he was. "With proper training, he could produce lightning in another few months or a year. He could be a master before he turns 14."
"But even Azula..."
"Azula was a natural... your son is not. But he works and studies harder than I would have thought possible; I have never met anyone more singularly focused on their firebending training. If Azula had pushed herself half so hard... Well, it's a good thing she didn't."
After a contemplative pause, Zuko continued, "What should we do?"
"Well, I would be happy to continue training him, but I need to make a quick trip back to my shop and make arrangements for a longer departure. It should take no longer than a month. I can leave instructions for him while I am gone."
"Thank you, Uncle."
"He really is incredible, Zuko." Iroh chuckled. "Though there is the matter of the girl..."
Zuko nodded. "Mai has agreed to foster her."
"He may need to be separated from her for a little while if he is ever to truly master these techniques. Right now, like his emotions, they are difficult to control."
"Right." Zuko glanced at Mai and she gave him a curt nod. "I think we'll find a way to give him a little distance."
Iroh gave Zuko a quick pat on the shoulder, and left to make arrangements.
"Well, at least I'm on Roku's good side for now," Mai sighed. "I gave him a private demonstration of the knife throwing, so he has that on Kara. Not that she might care a whole lot about that these days." Tom-Tom continued to hang around, though Mai had been dropping increasingly unsubtle hints that he had worn out his welcome. She collapsed onto the bed, exhausted and fully dressed.
Smiling warmly to himself, Zuko set about gently removing Mai's shoes.
"Careful. I'm wearing more of the knives than usual."
"Reminds me of when we were newlyweds," Zuko said, casually nursing a small cut on his finger.
"What am I going to do about my brother?" Mai sighed, beginning to remove the ornaments from her hair.
Zuko moved to assist her. "I've taken care of it."
"What?" Mai sat up.
"I thought he could help with the airships. I have Sokka coming up to oversee things, but I thought he could use an assistant. Tom-Tom's certainly not the worst choice, and he really likes those ships..."
"You're brilliant," Mai said, the words free from any hint of sarcasm. Zuko looked at her skeptically. "Have you spoken to him about this?"
"Yeah, yesterday. He'll be coming out to the site with me tomorrow."
Mai leaned over and kissed him. "Brilliant."
As Mai predicted, Kara was coldly furious with Tom-Tom for giving her no notice of his trip. Roku was in better spirits than usual, stoically accepting Iroh's and Zuko's departures. Kara watched them leave, standing beside a thoroughly put-out Toph, who, though she generally enjoyed the girl, had little patience for teenage angst and boy-related troubles.
"Toph?" Mai asked. "I was wondering if you would be willing to help Roku with some of his bending training. The exercises Iroh left for him are more theoretical than anything, but he could use the guidance of an exceptional bender like yourself."
Toph extracted her arm from Kara's grasp and readily agreed. "Come on then, Sparky." Roku had raised no objections to the nickname since he had produced the beginnings of lightning. "Let's see what you've got to work with."
Roku led the way excitedly. Mai had gathered from one of his rambling descriptions of the previous few weeks that Toph had performed some incredible feats of metal and earthbending to entertain him, inspiring Roku to continue his training with new vigor, and earning herself another devoted fan. Though she had delighted in annoying Roku, Toph seemed to be enjoying the hero-worship even more.
"We have lessons," Mai said abruptly to Kara, who straightened and followed. Mai had to admit that she looked forward to Suki's arrival; Mai had little idea how she would navigate any potential outward displays of emotion from her pupil. Besides, her own teenage years had offered her little reference for dealing with such trivial matters as this, set as they had been against a backdrop of war and turmoil that somehow (perhaps coupled with youth's egoism, perhaps not) made everything seem much more serious and important than whatever this could be. Regardless, Mai would be relieved if she were not asked to empathize, and prayed Kara knew better than to try.
In doing one of her usual afternoon sweeps of the palace, ears alert for news and gossip, Mai spotted Roku storming down the hallway, his arms loaded with scrolls.
"Roku? Shouldn't you be at lessons?"
"I was but I couldn't concentrate..." Roku frowned. "I asked to be excused to read in my own room. Alone."
"Does this have anything to do with--"
"She won't stop talking, Mother! She's been whining all week that he hasn't written her yet, and now that he finally has, she's still unhappy that he didn't say the right things! Then I just agreed with her and said Tom-Tom was being kind of a jerk, and she got all angry with me! I just don't get why she's still..." Roku muttered a few incoherent words. "Girls are crazy."
Mai had to fight the urge to smile. "You didn't just storm out of your lessons, did you?"
Roku sighed. "Of course not, Mother. I just excused myself." He looked at her, almost challenging his mother to try and scold him.
Mai just nodded approvingly.
"If it's all right, I'd like to just go to my room and read." Roku was scowling at the floor.
She silently moved out of his way and watched him continue down the hall, amused. Mai then continued in the direction from which Roku had come. Excusing the tutor, Mai seated herself beside Kara, who was attempting to hide the signs that she had been crying. She seemed to want to preemptively apologize, but held herself back, waiting for Mai to speak first.
Mai took her time, observing the girl carefully. "What does my brother say?"
Kara began to speak, but her voice wavered on the first word it attempted, so she just passed Mai the letter, short and uninformative as it was.
"And you've been writing him daily?" It was hardly a question. Mai knew.
Kara nodded, stifling a short sob, not even pausing to ask how Mai was aware.
Mai surprised herself by feeling some pity for the girl. "This is pretty typical of him. He never sends more than a few lines to his own family, even if we haven't heard from him in months. He's sixteen, Kara, and idle and free, as he prefers himself." She resisted imparting some of the more bitter truths regarding Tom-Tom and girls; her brother was generally pretty shameless and open about such things.
"But he said..." Kara managed.
"Yes. He'll do that." It came out harsher than Mai intended, but she was all too familiar with this story. In recent years, her brother's departures from the palace had left a wake of similar laments. She was honestly just relieved he hadn't done more damage this time.
Kara stifled a couple more sobs. "And now Roku is mad at me, too..."
Mai had to make a conscious effort not to roll her eyes. "He isn't mad. He just doesn't understand and that frustrates him."
Kara seemed to be steadying herself; Mai's impassiveness often seemed to make that easier for people. "What should I do?"
"I suppose that depends on what you really want. You can continue writing my brother as you have been, knowing that this is really the most you can expect to receive and it may be a while before he returns. I wouldn't object; correspondence is a fine exercise for you. Or you may choose to spare yourself the trouble of attempting to hold my brother's attention." Mai shrugged indifferently.
"And Roku?" Kara ventured.
"Ah, Roku... well, I think he would like to know how to help improve your mood, provided that can be done without any mention of Tom-Tom." Kara smiled weakly. "He may also need time," Mai continued, "which is fortunate, as I've arranged for the two of us to travel to the Earth Kingdom when Iroh returns."
Kara's face was unreadable to Mai. She was clearly surprised, but whether she was disappointed or excited, Mai couldn't guess.
"We'll be visiting Ursa while Iroh works with Roku."
The girl just nodded. Mai wanted to say something more, to fish for more clues about what was going on in her head, but instead rose and left the room, allowing Kara her privacy.
Kara's mood was not improving as the date of Iroh's return grew closer. Roku had been keeping his distance, working alone, and with Suki's arrival, Kara was devoting more time to training with her mother. Mai had been able to steal Suki away for some evening company, however, and found herself asking, "How is Kara doing?"
"I don't really know," Suki answered casually, contemplating her next move. Mai was better at pai sho, but winning was rarely really the object. She enjoyed playing with Suki and Iroh most because the two of them could consistently surprise her.
"She seems very withdrawn," Mai pressed.
"Of course she does; she's thirteen."
"Aren't you worried?"
"About what? She likes a boy more than he likes her, and now she's upset about it and trying to figure things out. I'm not going to meddle with that. It's her mistake to make." Suki made a move that predictably surprised Mai. "Sorry, I know he's your brother and everything, but he's kind of a jerk."
"No arguments here." Mai countered the move, and Suki responded quickly with another. "Are you playing with any kind of strategy?" Mai had to ask.
Suki only smiled.
"I'm surprised you're not more concerned. Kara seems to be taking this incredibly hard."
Suki laughed. "Of course she is! Don't you remember being thirteen, when the whole world was ending when something went wrong?"
"When I was thirteen, Zuko was burned and banished and left without saying goodbye. My family moved me away from the palace and everything I knew to keep me from getting dragged down as well."
"Okay, so maybe not when you were thirteen... "
Mai made a move. "How can you tell that this is one of the trivial issues?"
"Just a hunch, really. Kara puts on a brave face, around you especially, and it's easy to forget sometimes that she's still a little girl. I think quite a bit of Toph rubbed off on her that way." Suki smiled and almost carelessly moved one of her pieces. "She hates being reminded that she's still young and inexperienced. Something like this, where everyone else could see it was a bad idea, and she somehow just went charging in, oblivious? It's one of those reminders. If I make a big deal out of it, she'll just get more angry."
Mai examined the board. She felt she had made a misstep along the way. "Should I not have talked to her about my brother?"
Suki arched an eyebrow. "I don't really see you charging in and speaking to my daughter about boy troubles."
Mai hesitated. "It was affecting Roku's studies." She felt Suki contemplating her, but feigned indecision over her next move instead of meeting Suki's eyes.
"Well, that might be why she's in an especially sour mood; she hates disappointing you."
Mai glanced up to meet Suki's eyes.
Suki shrugged. "It's been years since Sokka and I were really among her role models, but you're right at the top of the list. She adores Toph's attitude and Katara's grace, but I think she really looks up to you because you're not a bender, either." Suki glanced at the board and moved a tile.
"But... neither are you." Suki had, as usual, surprised Mai.
"Yeah, but Sokka and I are pretty ordinary. You are certainly not. Someone like you would never get lost in a crowd. I think that's what Kara wants to be like."
Mai was at a loss.
"Don't let that get you thinking you should be going easier on her or treating her like a princess at all or anything special; she gets enough of that from her father and me. One of the things she likes about you is that your approval has to be earned; it's more genuine in her eyes."
"Not like that cheap, indiscriminate kind you and Sokka hand out?" Mai lightly moved her tile.
"Right. Exactly." Suki grinned. She picked up a piece and set it down decisively. "Now, pretend you never heard any of that."
"Just one more question... Would you be disappointed if your daughter turned out like me?"
"I mean, there are worse things she could do. Obviously I'd prefer it if she smiled a little more, but... I wouldn't be disappointed." Suki smiled. "Anyway, she'd have a hard time being Fire Lady if she wasn't like you."
"How... what makes you think...?"
"Oh, come on, Mai. If you were anyone else, I'd apologize for being presumptuous, but this is you. That's the only reason you ever agreed to let her come back here in the first place, let alone foster her."
Mai was genuinely taken aback. "Does Sokka know?"
Suki shrugged. "Sokka can figure it out for himself." She looked up at Mai, who still looked a little stunned and nervous, and continued a little more gently, "I'm not mad, Mai. I know it's nothing official or you would have brought us in on it ages ago. And Kara doesn't stop talking about Roku and this place whenever she's away, so I figure that unless anything changes drastically, she'd be happy. That's all I really care about. I mean, obviously I'd prefer if your scheming could be a little more delicate about that... but I know you have your reasons for what you do, and you'll make it up to her, if only by making your son a good man as well as a good prince." Suki scanned the board before making one last move. "And since we'd had all these hopes for Kara being some kind of warrior, hopes that Sokka still clings to despite everything, you get to be the one to tell him when the time is right."
Mai had been away from home for months, and it was starting to get to her. She had hoped she would be allowed to go back before winter, but that was seeming more and more unlikely. And now this.
"Iroh had no right," she was insisting to Ursa.
"I'm sure he felt it was a valuable lesson."
"But Roku isn't ready..."
"He asked, Mai."
"Even so... it could have gone... He might be their kin, but he's Zuko's son."
"Iroh was there to supervise. He would never let any harm come to Roku."
"Not physically, no. But... Ursa, I haven't been there myself. Not since I first saw what happened to them."
Ursa squeezed Mai's hand. "They are not your blood, Mai. They are where Roku comes from, and it may have been important to him to see. What did he have to say about it?"
Mai laid the scroll flat on the table; her hands were shaking too much to hold it properly. "He seems to have handled it well. He saw Ozai first, in the prison. He didn't speak to Roku, only to Iroh." Mai skipped the physical description of Ozai. The one still in her mind, from before his decade in prison, was haunting enough. "When he saw Azula, he says she talked to him like he was Zuko, but Iroh took him away before she got too violent. Roku says he had never seen rage like that before, from anyone, the way he sensed it with them." Her voice wavered slightly, threatening to break. She calmed herself quickly. "Iroh's lesson on power and its corruption of the mind seems to have landed, but I just wish he could have done it some other way..."
"Did you plan on hiding them from Roku forever, Mai?" Ursa asked gently.
Mai sighed. "I don't know..."
"They shaped the world Roku lives in. They shaped his parents. He was naturally curious. And with his firebending gifts emerging as they are, he needed to see how they could be mishandled."
Mai nodded, but her feelings of unease would not be shaken.
Mai had the distinct impression that Ursa had somehow gotten the word out about Mai's distress, as it wasn't long before letters from Zuko, Iroh, and Roku arrived, each attempting to put her at ease in their own way. Zuko's was apologetic, though this had clearly been important to him. Mai knew he had been slipping out to see his father and sister since their imprisonment, but he had only rarely spoken of the visits, and generally only when Mai asked. Iroh, too, had been to see his brother and niece, though not terribly frequently. He explained that he always went looking for some kind of change, a sliver of hope, in either of them, and invariably he came away disappointed. It was important to Iroh that both of them were acknowledged, and not swept away and forgotten; they were still family, dangerous as they were, and should never be dismissed easily. Mai could appreciate that, though her stay in prison under her uncle's care had been relatively short and mild when compared to what Zuko and the rest of his family had gone through: imprisonment, banishment, exile. All of them put aside to be forgotten. Mai knew she had no place to ask Zuko to forget his own family, not when his own banishment had left such a mark on him, and she now realized she could have never expected Zuko to allow his own son to ignore them either.
It was Roku's letter that calmed her the most; he was clearly still himself, more mild if anything. Not long ago, he would have expressed some childish indignation at her concern for him, but this... Roku was assuring her, in more ways than he intended, that he was growing up. Mai didn't even attempt to conceal her pride when she shared the letters with Ursa, who seemed equally pleased with her family.
"I wonder, though... You usually give yourself more time to cool off before writing," Ursa commented.
Mai was speechless for a moment. "I had thought it was you."
Ursa smiled. "That would be characteristic, but no, it wasn't me." She looked to Mai. "How is your pupil coming along?"
"I suppose that's possible..."
"She's easy to underestimate," Ursa conceded.
"She gets that from her parents," Mai added dryly.
Ursa smiled. "You should teach her to use it, and not make that mistake yourself." Ursa's eyes subtly looked to her right, and Mai took the hint.
She sighed. "Kara, we know you're there. Come out."
"You know, it's cheating if you aren't actually sure I'm there," Kara said boldly, gracefully seating herself beside Ursa.
Mai frowned, then gave her mother-in-law a questioning look.
"I may have been teaching her some things besides basic etiquette," Ursa admitted, her smile slightly mischievous.
Mai sighed again, weighing her options. She wasn't in love with the idea of anyone spying on her, let alone teaching them how to do it herself, but she eventually reached the same conclusion she came to when she first caught Kara playing with her throwing knives: if the girl was going to learn, she might as well learn properly.
"You'd think the two of you were preparing for battle," Ursa commented, joining Mai in observing Kara at her work.
"It's her pace."
"She's not wonderful with the knives, and she knows it. Her accuracy is actually very good, but unless her speed catches up, they're a fairly pointless weapon to carry. She'd be better off with her sword."
"And yet she trains," Ursa observed, watching Kara practice producing and throwing the knives.
"And yet she trains. Her parents would be proud."
"I'm not at all certain it's her parents she's trying to impress, Mai. Any word from the palace?"
Mai shook her head. "Not since Aang came to visit." Roku had been incredibly thrilled to host the Avatar, and written Mai extensively about it. She gathered that the visit had been positive for Aang as well; he had been rather without playmates lately, and Roku seemed well suited for the job. It seemed a nice vacation for each of them from everything else they were dealing with. When Aang had left, however, Roku once again became singularly focused on his training.
"Zuko and Iroh had written about taking Roku to see the dragons," Mai continued. "I wouldn't consent, but I think they may have gone anyway." Kara faltered with the knife. "If you're going to eavesdrop..." Mai called to her.
"I know. I can't get distracted." She managed to hit her target.
"You don't seem that upset," Ursa noted to Mai.
"I don't plan on ever finding out for sure either way."
Ursa had to smile at her. "You'd be surprised at the adventures a mother can tolerate finding out about."
"I'm not sure I would." Ursa had set the bar very high, after all. "But those are limits I would rather not test."
Ursa nodded, studying Mai's face. "Don't let him go yet, Mai."
"He still needs you. Whatever you might think right now, or however well he's been doing these past few months, he still needs you. He hasn't grown up yet. You don't need to let him go." Ursa smiled. "And you should give Zuko an earful if he took my grandson to the dragons."
"What's wrong?" Mai called to Kara, who had stopped.
She hesitated to respond. "You're kidding about dragons, right? Because I'm listening?"
"No," Mai replied immediately. "Zuko and Aang, and Iroh before them, had seen the dragons as part of their firebending training."
Kara frowned. "My dad told me about a silly dragon dance that Zuko did..."
"Of course he did." Mai had to smile. "There were actual dragons, too. But don't go spreading that around... it's more or less a secret."
"Like... real dragons? More than one? And Roku's going to.... is that safe?!"
"Probably not, but he's in the best possible hands for that sort of thing."
"But what if... How can you just... ?" Kara caught herself and took a few deep breaths. "They're going to be okay, right?"
"I certainly hope so." Mai looked at her curiously. "They're all benders, and can certainly take care of themselves."
Kara nodded, and made an attempt to return to her work.
"I would expect to hear from them soon, though," Mai said, returning to her conversation with Ursa. "Zuko will at least want to assure me that they're all still breathing, so I don't get hysterical," she said dryly.
Ursa grinned. "Well, it should be a short trip... but with Iroh along..."
Mai sighed. "I know. Allowing the time for him to go native and back, I'm not sure when to expect another letter. I'll just have to keep a close watch for birds."
"I'm a little tired," Kara called suddenly. Mai raised an eyebrow. "I think I could just use a walk."
"That sounds refreshing. Might I join you?" Ursa asked, smiling, and the two of them left Mai alone.
She would wait for Ursa's report.
"What on earth did you say to her?" Mai whispered to Ursa, quietly as she could, even after making what was now a habitual check for her eavesdropping pupil. It was still early and she had checked to confirm that Kara was still asleep, but even so, she whispered.
"Nothing, really. She didn't want to talk to me." Ursa smiled, a little mischievously. "She gave me the slip."
"What's going on with her?" Mai sighed.
Ursa had to laugh lightly at Mai's frustration. "She's a teenager, Mai. She should be allowed some privacy to deal with that. She'll come to us when she's figured things out."
Mai nodded, but continued, "She seemed a little upset when I talked about keeping an eye out for any letters... Is she writing my brother again? That might actually explain some things."
"Perhaps," Ursa said thoughtfully. "Could you ask Tom-Tom?"
Mai shook her head. "I think he knows I discouraged it, and he hates it when I pry. If he even responded to the question, I don't think I could believe him."
Ursa nodded. "Kara then? Could you ask her?"
Mai hesitated. "I did. She denied it, of course, but she was a little flustered. I'm not sure if she was lying or the question just caught her off-guard, though... I was hoping you'd know."
Ursa smiled. "She's a faster study than I anticipated. I'm afraid she's become much more guarded under your influence."
"And yours," Mai added.
Ursa shook her head. "No, that's not my doing. I can keep my secrets, certainly, but my emotions themselves are still readable. Kara is learning to hide hers, as you do."
That was more than a little unsettling, and Mai was more bothered by it than she would have expected. "I didn't teach... at least, I didn't intend to teach her that."
"Interesting," Ursa noted.
Mai sighed. "I miss Zuko. He's always so straightforward." Ursa looked at her inquiringly, and Mai shook her head. "I still haven't had any word on when we might be able to return. Just a line or two this morning that said that they were fine and still traveling."
"Patience, Mai," was all Ursa said, softly, with a sad smile.
Mai had to remind herself just who she was talking to, and felt suddenly ashamed. Zuko was younger than Roku when Ursa had been separated from him. Even now, it was always a long time between Zuko's visits, and she had not even met her grandson. If anyone knew about patience... Mai sighed. "I'm sorry..."
Ursa shook her head. "No," she said gently. "I told you before, don't let him go yet."
Mai turned quickly, thinking she sensed Kara nearby. She sighed. "Why did we teach her to do that? I'm never going to rest easy."
"You get used to it," Ursa smiled fondly at Mai. "You could just start letting her in on everything; it's so much work to be opponents."
"I don't think that would make us allies. If she knew..." Mai sighed and, feeling embarrassingly paranoid, lowered her voice as much as possible. "I don't think it would make her happy to know that I've had designs on her future. If she's reluctant, it could all fall apart."
Ursa nodded. "What does Kara want out of all of this?"
"I thought I knew, but... She seems a lot more withdrawn around me lately. It might be like you said, that she's just practicing hiding her emotions, but I think there's something more than that, and she's hiding it from me." Mai frowned. "I just don't know what to do."
"Wait," Ursa told her, simply. "Be as predictable as you can be. She'll come to you eventually. I know it's tempting to do something, to force it, but you may just lose her cooperation entirely. Let her lead the way, and follow where she guides you."
With Kara leading, Mai soon found herself out of her comfort zone, and thoroughly lost in Kara's.
Katara had arrived on Appa in a huff, refusing to speak with anyone until she had been granted some distance from Sokka and Suki. Whether it was that Katara had once again rescued Kara's parents from some kind of harrowing danger or that she simply could only tolerate so much time with the pair of them or some combination of the two, Mai didn't bother asking. Instead, Mai preferred retreating and helping Ursa around the tea shop. The shift in dynamic when Kara's family arrived was enough to give a person whiplash, and Mai didn't know her place there. From the sidelines, however, Mai was able to observe as a more comfortable version of Kara reemerged. As different as the girl was around her parents, Mai had to admit she preferred that incarnation. The overly reserved and eerie imitation of herself was starting to annoy her, anyway.
"So I take it Kara invited you?" Mai asked Suki over another game of pai sho. The sound of Sokka training his daughter with her sword was strangely soothing, probably in that it assured Mai of Kara's whereabouts.
"More or less. She just wrote to say how much she missed us, and Sokka immediately freaked out and started making arrangements. I think it's probably safe to say she expected that, though." Suki seemed a little wary. "How have things been going between you two?"
"Fine. Relatively. She's been a little distant, but that's just part of the lessons." Mai sighed and resignedly pushed a tile across the board. "I don't know, anymore."
Suki smiled. "I don't think she knows, either. It might just be that you never really make it very clear where anyone stands with you."
Mai was about to object when the sounds of Sokka's cheering and Kara's delighted laughter erupted from the yard.
Suki laughed. "Sokka and I are a little more blunt about the approval, I think."
Mai attempted a smile, but it fell as she shook her head. "I think it's more complicated than that."
"Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I don't think she's going to talk to me about anything serious. I mean, when you were a teenager, how open were you with your mother? Or anyone, really?"
Mai frowned. All she could remember was hiding everything from everyone. Or trying, at any rate; Azula always just seemed to know things. Mai wondered if that was the role she had taken in Kara's life. "Does she have any friends her own age?"
Suki looked a little sad. "We just never actually settled anywhere... and she's kind of a loner. She seems to sort of... well, she has some trouble making friends. A lot of the time, kids think she's kind of... snobby."
Mai's head reeled a little in a sudden wave of recollection. "I see..."
"I know Sokka and I... mostly Sokka... don't do much to keep her humble, but..." Suki shrugged. "Well, if there's anything you think you can do to make her feel at home again, or any way you can talk to her, we'd appreciate it. She can't hide with us forever."
Nodding, Mai returned her eyes to the board, lost.
"I don't understand," Mai said, frowning.
"Well," Zuko and Iroh began together, each trying to explain why they had simply been there when Mai woke up that morning.
"Roku, you understand, he is very persuasive," Iroh said finally. Mai looked at him coldly.
"What I don't understand is why, after leaving me here for months to help with Roku's training, you show up here without a word, because Roku told you to."
"It wasn't just like that, Mai," Zuko attempted. "After we saw Ozai and Azula and the dragons, Roku asked why he shouldn't be allowed to finally visit his grandmother."
"And we couldn't give him an answer, so we thought, you know... why not?" Iroh explained.
Mai glanced over at Roku, who was sitting with Ursa, both of them completely lost in their own conversation. Their first.
"Still, you could have given me time. I could have taken Kara away."
"There was no time, Mai," Zuko explained, his eyes pleading for forgiveness. "No messenger could have beat us by much. We came straight here." He looked briefly at Iroh. "Pretty much."
"You absolutely must try this new tea. The Sun Warriors taught me how to brew it. The recipe is difficult but delicious and very spicy!" He chuckled. "I haven't managed it yet, but I brought lots of supplies. Zuko, would you mind unloading them for me?"
Mai gaped, speechless with indignation, and watched as the Fire Lord unloaded his uncle's baggage. It wasn't the best thing to do, Mai was aware, but she sought out Kara on the yard.
"Kara, why don't we show your parents what you've learned with the knives?"
The girl blinked a few times and nodded.
"Follow my lead," Mai instructed when they were prepared, and she and Kara began a synchronized dance, each unleashing the weapons at what was now a very battered tree. Mai could sense the girl was having a hard time keeping up, as Kara's pace had remained relatively sluggish, but pushed those limits regardless. In truth, Kara was performing admirably, nearly as well as Mai, nearly...
"Ah!" Kara cried and clutched her hand. Already blood was pooling in her palm. "I'm sorry... I was careless," she apologized to Mai, her eyes strangely calm. "I'll go find Katara."
"I'll come!" Sokka was at her side immediately, stuffing her hand with scraps from a sleeve he had torn off.
"I'm fine, Dad. It's really not bad." Kara excused herself as Sokka watched anxiously.
Mai watched the girl carefully, ready to slip away and follow her, when Suki took her arm. "Walk with me," she offered, smiling as usual. "Sokka, I think Katara had been tending to Appa. Why don't you go and take over for her?" she called as they left, leaving him no time to argue.
"What's wrong?" Mai asked.
"Funny. I was going to ask you the same thing. What was the meaning of all of that?"
"It's... I'm sorry. It was harder than I should have pushed her."
"Mai," Suki said, looking suddenly serious. "Have you ever seen my daughter be careless with any weapon?"
"Of course not," Mai sighed. "I'm sorry, you've trained her very well. I didn't mean anything... She just wanted to talk to Katara."
"Alone, Mai. She wanted to talk to Katara alone. She actually cut her hand open to get out of your company, and I think you ought to be bright enough to take that hint." Suki wasn't smiling.
"I'm sorry, Suki. I just wanted to find out what's been going on with her... I thought she might tell Katara."
"I agree. That's all the more reason to leave them alone. I told you that she doesn't have many friends. I didn't tell you that so you would invade the few relationships she does have. If she wants you to know something, you'll know. Until then you'll just have to be patient, or you're no friend at all."
Azula's face again, in Mai's mind. Is that really what she had let herself become? Was she really that controlling? Did she want Kara to become a follower? "I'll try to do better," she promised.
Suki's face softened. "I know. And I know those years of your life were especially difficult and you don't have a lot to go on, but... she just needs to be able to trust someone. And you have to start trusting her. And quit meddling before someone loses an eye."
Katara had been avoiding Mai exceptionally well for the past few days. Mai had the feeling she was getting help. She also had the distinct impression that Kara had told her aunt about inflicting the injury on herself to escape Mai, as Katara seemed a bit more hostile than usual. Mai wished Aang had been free to join them; she could have used an interpreter for Katara's moods.
"Mai, seriously, what's going on?" Zuko pressed her. Though they were granted some amount of privacy at home that morning, Mai could only think about where everyone might be.
"I don't know," she replied honestly. "Is Roku out with Ursa again?"
Zuko nodded. "Mother told him about what she did... why she's here, and not in the Fire Nation... he's kind of bursting with questions. I don't think I've seen him out of her company in days."
"I should find Kara," Mai said absently.
"She's probably busy training somewhere, I'd imagine. She's been spending some time with Iroh lately. I think he really enjoyed having a kid to mentor again."
"I thought he was busy experimenting with those new teas?"
"It's Uncle Iroh," Zuko shrugged. "He finds ways to bring the two together."
Mai nodded, smiling faintly.
Zuko contemplated her for a moment. "Come on, let's go do something fun. Spontaneous."
Mai raised an eyebrow. "Like what?"
"I don't know... something different," he shrugged. "What would Sokka do?"
"I really don't know."
"Wait... here he comes, I'll ask him." Zuko was grinning. Mai had to return the smile. It seemed ages since she had permitted herself, or Zuko for that matter, to act in any matter that might be considered even remotely silly.
"Hey, Sokka!" Zuko called, meeting him at the door. "Hey, I was wondering, what would you--" And that was when Sokka hit him.
Mai didn't remember drawing her knives, but stood poised in case Sokka struck again.
"What the hell, Sokka?!" Zuko shouted, rubbing his jaw.
Sokka responded with a string of nonsense and raised his fist to hit Zuko again, when the rest of them caught up.
"DAD!" Kara shouted, distracting Sokka just long enough to throw enough knives to pin his arm against the wall. Her speed was getting better, Mai noted.
"Sokka, calm down!" Suki urged, grabbing his other arm as he struggled to free himself.
"He...! His stupid son...!" Sokka was yelling, still struggling.
Kara marched up to him, punched a few spots, and his arms went limp. "Zuko wasn't the one I kissed, Dad!"
"I'll kill him!" Sokka yelled, impotent.
"Sure you will, Dad," Kara sighed.
"Father, are you all right?" Roku offered.
Sokka began to curse at Roku. "YOU! I SAW YOU! With... with your HANDS! My daughter is not some Fire Nation floozy that you can just... just DEFILE like that!"
"DAD, stop exaggerating." Kara's cheeks and neck were reddening, but she still met her father's gaze.
"I should have known better than to trust him!" Sokka lamented, turning to Zuko. "He is your son after all."
"And just what is THAT supposed to mean?!" The shock seemed to have worn off, and Zuko's temper was rising.
"You know what that's supposed to mean," Sokka replied coldly. "You were all over the girls before you settled down with Mai... and I'm just assuming you actually settled down."
"What are you even talking about?!" Zuko gaped at Sokka. "It's you and girls!"
"Oh, come ON, Zuko! There was Toph, and you used to be all over my sister, and I know you tried a few moves on Suki even with me right there!"
"At least I'm not a tramp!"
"YOU MADE OUT WITH THE MOON!"
"I'm warning you, Zuko, don't even go there!" Sokka growled contemptuously. "Anyway, compared to you, I'm practically inexperienced!"
"That is so the opposite of what you've been bragging to me for years!"
"Katara's going to be really disappointed she missed this," Suki whispered to Mai.
Mai just shook her head. It was truly amazing what little prompting it took to revert those two back to the boys they were when they met.
"Mother?" Roku said softly. He was nearly her height now. When had that happened? "I need to talk to you." Mai's eyes went to Roku's hand, his fingers firmly laced in Kara's. She nodded and told them to wait for her inside.
"NO! Where is he going with her?!" Sokka struggled against the knives pinning him in place, his arms flapping uselessly. "I won't allow it! I don't want him anywhere near her!"
"Take her! I'm sure my son can do better than her anyway!"
"You come over here and say that!!" Sokka began trying to pull the knives out with his teeth.
"First, take back what you said about me and my son! I have only ever been involved with one woman!"
Mai took her opportunity. "Zuko, come on. You know I met that Earth Kingdom girlfriend of yours."
"Ha HAH!" Sokka shouted, attempting some kind of triumphant gesture with his legs. "I knew it! That's what this is about, isn't it?! Earth Kingdom girls just aren't good enough for you?!"
"Please, Sokka. Like you're any better?" Mai approached him and narrowed her eyes, her face inches from his. The color drained from his cheeks. "I know what happened between you and Ty Lee," she whispered, "and I've told Suki everything."
With that, Mai turned to leave. "That should keep them busy for a little while. Don't let them kill each other," she instructed Suki.
Suki nodded and suppressed a grin as Sokka protested, "That isn't... I swear... What did she tell you? I never... IT'S ALL LIES!"
Mai found Roku and Kara waiting for her inside, both of them clearly nervous. Mai seated herself across from them, and waited.
It was Roku who broke the silence. "Mother, I'm sorry you had to find out like this, and that Sokka hit Father because of it, but... Kara and I like each other."
That much was apparent. They were seated close together, still holding hands, both of them blushing and avoiding Mai's eyes, instead exchanging glances with each other, trying to inspire the confidence to continue.
"We know what you think," Roku went on. "We know you wanted to separate us. That you don't approve of us together."
"You don't approve of me," Kara said firmly, meeting Mai's eyes. "You never have."
That was a surprise. "What makes you think I don't approve of you?"
Kara looked like she might have laughed. "Please. You're always talking about what a bad influence I am and what's wrong with me!" Before Mai could object, Kara shot a quick glance at Roku and added, "And I know you broke up Tom-Tom and me because you don't even think I'm good enough for your little brother."
Roku squeezed Kara's hand and met his mother's eyes, watching her reaction.
"That's not..." Mai began, trying to figure out where to even begin to argue.
"You aren't going to deny it, are you? You may have gotten some help, but I know you were behind it."
"I was, but..."
"Right." Kara and Roku exchanged another meaningful look, and Kara began again quietly. "I know that I'm not Fire Nation, or a bender, or from a high-ranking family or anything, but... I've never been ashamed of any of that before."
"And she shouldn't have to be," Roku said to his mother, his eyes defiant.
"I like where I'm from," Kara continued. "And you know how hard I try. I hoped I could prove to you that I'm good enough for Roku, but apparently..."
"I don't need proof," Roku said to her gently.
Mai found herself surprised at the tenderness in Roku's voice. It was new. "When did this start?" she asked.
"We've been writing each other since you tried to separate us," Kara said boldly.
"Ah. So your coming here was her idea?" Mai asked her son.
He seemed insulted at the implication. "Kara just helped me figure out what to say to Father and Iroh. It was my idea, though. Like the dragons."
"I swear, that was him. I didn't know about the dragons until you told me," she insisted to Mai. "I wouldn't have pushed him to do anything that dangerous."
That wasn't strictly true, Mai understood, when she saw the look Kara gave her son. He'd done it all for Kara, to impress her. And it had worked.
"But his recent dedication in his studies? Is that something you pushed him to do?" Mai asked the girl.
"We thought if we could both do really well in our training, we might be able to see each other sooner," Roku answered, squeezing Kara's hand.
"Iroh and Ursa have been helping us find time together," Kara confessed. She smiled shyly at Roku.
"And they seem to approve of her," Roku challenged.
"Roku, Kara... You don't understand," Mai began.
"What don't we understand?" Kara questioned.
"I know you have high aspirations for me, but that shouldn't mean there's no room for Kara. I've looked it up, Mother, and it's not like there haven't been other Fire Lords... who... married...?" Roku trailed off when he noticed Kara shaking her head subtly.
"The important thing shouldn't be what you want for Roku," Kara prompted.
"It should be what will make me happy," Roku finished. Mai fought a smile, wondering how much time they had spent rehearsing this. "And I know I'm a prince and that makes things different... but..." Roku looked quickly at Kara and then added, "Kara would make a really good Fire Lady." Judging from Kara's face, he had clearly deviated from the script they had worked on.
Mai took her moment. "Both of you, quiet."
Kara looked heartbroken. "You can't..."
"I like Kara, Mother!"
"Roku, Kara, quiet," Mai said more firmly. "Kara, I've never had any problems with you. I sent Tom-Tom away because it was upsetting Roku to see you with someone else."
The two of them were stunned. Kara looked suspiciously at Mai and waited for her to continue.
"I separated you from Roku so that he could concentrate on firebending. I had thought his feelings for you were distracting him, and that could be dangerous. Apparently I was wrong to do that, or at least to think I could," Mai apologized to both of them before turning to Kara, making sure she had the girl's attention. "I had also wanted you to work with Ursa, because she was a tremendous help to me when I became Fire Lady." She watched Kara carefully, waiting for the girl to understand.
"Wait..." Roku scowled, trying to piece this together himself. "But I never told you any of that..."
"You did, actually," Mai said patiently, smiling at him. This was the Roku she knew. "Just maybe not intentionally."
Roku continued to puzzle over that, and Kara asked, "Can I ask how long you've known?"
"That this was happening? Maybe 20 minutes. That it would? Considerably longer. Probably since the first time Roku complained to me about you."
"So... all this time?" Kara asked.
"It was never anything official, and it isn't as though this had been arranged. I wanted to give Roku a chance to choose, and he clearly chose you a long time ago."
"And that's why you've been working with me since I was little. You were training me?" It was less of a question, but at least Kara seemed to be keeping up.
"All this time?" Roku was still having a hard time comprehending the true depths of his mother's plotting. He was so much like his father.
"It didn't seem prudent to tell either of you. I had no idea you would construct such elaborate conspiracies against yourselves. You were supposed to have the chance to simply come together on your own."
"I'm sorry," Kara arrived there first. "I should have at least considered that might be a possibility... but it would seem so... presumptuous."
"Don't apologize," Roku told her. "This is insane. I mean, I'm glad, but it's still insane."
"As you said, Roku, you're a prince." Mai smiled at him fondly. "And that makes things different."
By the time Mai reemerged with Roku and Kara, Sokka had resolved his differences with Zuko and appeared to be regaining some movement in his arms.
"So then I saw them on the roof, and I guess I overreacted. Sorry."
"And you saw them from...?" Zuko prompted.
Sokka rolled his eyes. "Yes. The treehouse I was working on."
"Isn't Kara a little old for a treehouse?" Zuko asked, smiling.
"It isn't for Kara, all right?" Sokka admitted. "It's more of a treefort anyway."
"They've been very well behaved," Suki informed Mai. "Once they tired themselves out, it was pretty easy from there."
"Sokka?" Roku approached him, bowing politely. Mai noticed that he remained more than an arm's reach away, just to be safe. "I'm sorry I didn't ask you first, but I like your daughter, and would appreciate your consent to continue seeing her."
"Are you serious?"
"Very much, sir."
Sokka, clearly impressed, turned to Zuko. "I was wrong about him being exactly like you. I think I like this kid. He's all right." He turned back to Roku, serious. "So what will you give me if I say yes?"
"Dad!" Kara interrupted. "Just give him permission or I'm going to continue seeing him behind your back."
"Fine, fine. Though I should really talk this over with your mother."
"She's fine with it," Kara informed him.
Sokka turned abruptly to Suki. "You knew?!"
"More or less."
"And you let me make an idiot out of myself anyway?"
"You hardly need my help for that, Sokka," Suki laughed, and, as a peace offering, moved to free him from the wall he was still pinned to.
"I'm just saying, it's brilliant," Sokka argued.
"You just want something else to brag about," Katara accused him.
"Come on, Mai," Zuko pressed, knowing that she was the one to convince. "You have to admit, it's pretty perfect."
"Exactly!" Sokka agreed. "Think about it. With the other nations all worried about Roku taking over the world, what could make them feel better than announcing he's going to marry a girl from both the Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom?! It's perfect!"
"Really perfect," Zuko agreed. "We're not saying they need to get married now..."
"Absolutely not saying that," Sokka added.
"But making it more official would have to make the other nations feel more secure!" He looked very pleased with himself. "Right?" he added, a little hesitantly.
"I'm not saying it wouldn't be a good move politically," Mai repeated. She had been over this since Sokka and Zuko had first excitedly presented the idea. "But is that something you want to do to your son, who is still a child, and may change his mind about Kara?" Sokka began to protest, so Mai added, "In the horribly unlikely and catastrophic event that might ever happen."
"Impossible, more like," Sokka said smugly. "Your kid is head over heels for my daughter. I don't see that changing."
"Right, Sokka, and you know everyone ends up marrying the first girl they fall for," Katara said slyly. "Mai's right."
Mai wasn't sure exactly what she was right about, but Katara had been going out of her way to agree with her. She had the impression Katara had not helped soothe her niece's fears about Mai plotting against her so much as fanned them, and was now attempting to make up for it.
"They are still really young, Sokka," Suki said, tonight playing his rational foil. "We should really talk to them first before seriously discussing this."
"They're kids, Suki. They wouldn't understand the politics here."
"That's what I'm saying, Sokka. They're kids."
"It's a lot of pressure to put on anyone that young," Katara agreed.
"Oh please. We were that young when we saved the world. You might remember."
"I remember just fine, Sokka. And I also remember it took you a good year and a half and a near-death experience to work up the nerve to give Suki a necklace."
"You always bring that up." Sokka frowned. "But you and Aang were their age when you were making out all over the place."
"It's different with royal families, though," Zuko interrupted. "Uncle was Roku's age when he was betrothed."
Iroh looked reluctant to be brought into the discussion so soon. "That's true, Zuko, but it was not a match we made ourselves."
"I would personally rather not marry them for purely political reasons," Mai added.
"Exactly," Katara said supportively.
"Well, obviously," Sokka argued, "if they didn't like each other I wouldn't be talking about it, but they do, so why wait?"
"It could really help us if Roku were publicly tied to someone like Kara," Zuko pressed.
"Just Kara. There's no one else like Kara," Sokka corrected him. "Which is exactly the reason there's no point in waiting." He threw his feet up on the table, satisfied and victorious.
"You're really okay with giving up any hopes of Kara becoming a warrior?" Mai asked. "You'd be fine if she turned out like me instead?"
"As long as everyone else finally has to call her 'Princess' I think he's fine," Suki sighed.
"Well, that, and knowing that she could definitely beat up your kid any day," he added, elbowing Zuko in the ribs.
Zuko no longer looked pleased. "Roku is a really good firebender."
"Well, sure, if you cheat he may stand a chance."
"Bending isn't cheating! Just because your kid can't do it..."
"She doesn't have to! I'd bet you anything that she could still take on Roku and crush him, even with his flashy party tricks!"
"Party tricks?!" Zuko sputtered.
"You can argue for betrothing them or making them duel," Mai said firmly. "Not both." Mai looked to Ursa for assistance; without a new voice in the conversation, Mai had a feeling the whole night would be spent this way.
"If the two of them supported a betrothal, would that ease your concerns?" Ursa asked.
"They're still young, but if they're sure..." Katara mulled it over.
"And that is within the realm of possibility," Zuko said, looking seriously at Mai.
"It would make me feel a little better if they had some say in this, at least," Suki added.
"Then it's settled! I'll make out the announcements, if there are no other volunteers..." Sokka made a move to rise, but Suki had him by the collar.
"You leave the art supplies alone, Sokka. And we're talking to Roku and Kara first," Suki clarified for him.
"What? Why?! It's obvious they're sure! How could they not be? This is our daughter we're talking about, Suki!"
"Exactly, Sokka... it's our daughter..." Suki groaned and gave up. "Mai, would you just go and talk to them? I'll hold him here."
"They're in the treehouse," Ursa offered helpfully, smiling.
"What...? MY treehouse?" Sokka looked horrified. Suki tightened her grip.
"Treefort," Zuko corrected him, smirking.
"Can I come up?" Mai called.
"Can you?" Kara answered, smiling over the edge, several feet over Mai's head.
Mai took a moment to recompose herself after she reached the top, and faced her son and the girl he had chosen.
"It isn't our intention to rush you into anything," Mai began.
"The betrothal?" Kara offered. "We heard our dads talking about it earlier."
"We've been talking about," Roku told her.
"And we're fine with it." Kara shrugged. "After speaking with you, we had actually kind of thought that's how things already were."
"It would be different," Mai said softly, a little hesitant. "With the world watching, it isn't something we could..." In this little haven Roku and Kara had created, Mai couldn't easily bring herself to continue.
"If we broke up, it would mean a lot more than just 'we broke up'," Kara said, sparing Mai.
"Well, then that's not a problem." Roku was confident. "We talked about it, and we're fine making the promise that we'll get married if it will help you and father." He noticed his mother's hesitation and rolled his eyes. "That's not the only reason, Mother. I'd do it anyway, even if you didn't want me to."
"We know what it means... and what it could mean for you." Kara turned to Roku.
"Father took me along to some of his councils when you were gone," Roku explained, "And I know..."
"We know it could help to have someone like me at the palace. Officially." Kara looked at her hands. "I told you before that I wasn't ashamed of where I'm from... and it sounds like that could actually be a good thing right now."
"Father and Sokka said it would be perfect," Roku added helpfully.
"It isn't a step that you need to take," Mai tried to explain. "There are always other things that we can do to smooth things over. We don't require you to move any faster..."
"She's the one I want, Mother," Roku said, impatient with Mai's caution. "She always has been."
Kara was blushing, but Mai recognized the smile she was giving Roku; it was the same one she had seen Suki and Sokka exchange so often.
Roku wasn't finished. "Mother, I'm sure. I spoke with Aang when he visited, and he and Katara were our age when they got together, and they knew. And that's what I feel about Kara."
"It's not the same, Roku." Mai tried to be patient. "They were your age when they got together, but that's about it. I can't imagine they fought half so often or drove each other half so crazy as you both managed."
"But that was because we liked each other," Kara tried to explain. "We were kids!"
"You still are kids, Kara," Mai said, a little sadly.
"We know that, and we're not actually getting married right away, but it's a promise we can make!"
"It's just like you and Father, though!" Roku declared defensively. "You didn't really get along when you were little, but that didn't mean you weren't sure." He took Kara's hand and looked back his mother defiantly. "We're sure, Mother."
Mai had to smile. There was clearly no arguing here.
Zuko was waiting for her when Mai came down.
"Mother sent me," he explained. He glanced up the treehouse. "So?" He very much wanted to have done well.
Mai smiled and took his hand. "They're behind the idea. I guess they've actually thought this through."
Zuko grinned. "Between that and his letter writing, I guess he's not exactly like me, huh?"
"It's just a surprisingly grown-up promise for Roku to be making is all."
"You can't protect him from being an adult, Mai," Zuko said seriously. "Besides, if we don't make it official, who knows what might happen? I don't want them to risk losing each other over politics, just because we were too reluctant to see them as anything but children."
Mai squeezed his hand. "That's a very good argument, Zuko. Why didn't you say that earlier?"
"I hadn't thought of it yet," he shrugged.
She sighed. "I suppose we're doing this, then?"
"Doing what, really? She's practically been a part of the family for years. We're just getting around to telling the rest of the world."
"There's more to it than that. There are implications..."
"And none of them will matter unless Roku and Kara aren't right for each other, and you know as well as I do that they are," Zuko said matter-of-factly. He looked at her seriously. "It's like with you and me."
Mai narrowed her eyes. "That's what Roku said."
"I may have been telling him some more about that," Zuko admitted, "but only because they do actually remind me a lot of us."
Mai cocked her head. "Were you actually that sure about anything when you were Roku's age, let alone me?"
"I might have been if you had talked to me more back then," Zuko teased. "So I was probably a little older, but once I knew..." he shrugged. "I knew."
Mai leaned her head on his shoulder as they started back. "That's sweet, Zuko."
"You... you do know I only went out with that Earth Kingdom girl because I had totally given up any hope of ever returning to the Fire Nation, right? And Iroh sort of made me? And I was never interested in Toph or Katara..."
Mai laughed. "Zuko, I don't care."
"Really? It just seemed like before, that you sort of did."
Mai leaned in to kiss him. "We were kids once. And with everything else going on... But we grew up. Just like those two," Mai said, gesturing to the treehouse.
It was fitting that Kara chose that moment to knock Roku out of the tree.
"Roku?!" Mai called, a little panicked.
"I'm fine, Mother!" he called back. No sooner had he gotten back to his feet than he started attempting to pull the treehouse ladder away. "Let's see you get down now!" he called up to Kara, each of them grinning.
Mai could only sigh and shake her head.
"Well, they're growing up," Zuko said encouragingly.