By Kimberly T.

Author's Note: This idea has been percolating in my brain for over a year already. I decided to go ahead, write it out and start posting it now, before that Mai-centric comic book I've heard about is published in May 2013 for Free Comic Book Day, just to see how much of my character assessment mirrors what we'll see in the comic.

Mai's character was woefully underdeveloped in the series, so fan speculation about her past, her motivations and her future with Zuko have been rampant. To make her a better future Fire Lady/Royal Consort, some fanfic writers have made her politically savvy, excelling at diplomacy and actually enjoying all the schmoozing and networking at parties and political functions that Zuko would be only too glad to delegate to her. That would make her a great life-partner for the Firelord, but we saw nothing in the series to support the idea, other than the fact that her father is a high-level diplomat. A father and family that Mai all but begged Azula to take her away from in "Return to Omashu", because she was bored out of her mind.

In that same episode, when rebels attacked her family Mai instantly sprang into action, even ahead of the family guards. In a later episode, Mai proclaimed "Victory is boring" when, after a long chase, a fight with the Water Tribe siblings was over in mere seconds. From those moments as well as all her fight scenes, I conclude that Mai is actually an Action Girl, someone who lives for excitement; happiest when danger or at least adventure is looming and her adrenaline is pumping. Someone who was unfortunately born into the wrong family, and severely repressed by parents who wanted a pretty china doll to marry off for political advantage, instead of a real daughter. We'll see soon enough if the official comic agrees with my views.

Chapter 1: Still Bored

It had been a full year since the last time Mai had been in Omashu, and a lot had changed since then:

Azula had recruited her and Ty Lee for some excitement, and the three of them had ridden across the Earth Kingdom to search for Zuko, as well as hunt for the Avatar.

Zuko had helped Azula kill the Avatar so he could return home from his banishment, and Mai had returned to the Fire Nation with him and Azula.

Only a few months after his return, Zuko had turned on his family and broken up with her, in order to join the Avatar (who wasn't dead after all.)

Crazy King Bumi had taken back his city and kicked Mai's parents out so hard, they ran clear back to the Fire Nation.

Mai herself had turned on Azula to save Zuko, and then Ty Lee had turned on Azula to save Mai; the two of them had spent over a month in jail as a result.

Azula had gone crackers, nearly killing Zuko in the process, and been put in an insane asylum.

Zuko had been crowned Firelord and declared the war over.

Mai had been released from jail, gotten back together with Zuko and been all-but-officially recognized as the future Royal Consort, to her parents' delight.

Ty Lee had left Mai and the Fire Nation behind again, this time to join the Kyoshi Warriors.

A lot of other stuff had happened, but those were the important events as far as Mai was concerned.

Yes, there had been a lot of changes, but one thing hadn't changed; the city of Omashu was still boring.

Dull brown everywhere, with splashes of drab green. Delivery chutes with stone bins zipping down them at regular intervals. Peasants going to market or coming back from market or going to work or whatever they did in the course of their miserable daily lives. Government officials scurrying here and there, all thinking they were important people doing important things when most of the time the world would get along just fine without them. Booorrrriiinnng. And Mai was stuck here with absolutely nothing to do except sharpen her weapons, practice her already perfect aim and watch the insanely boring world go by.

For at least the hundredth time she wondered why she'd come here to Omashu in the spring, for what had been optimistically named the First Annual World Peace Summit. She could have stayed back in the Fire Nation, where she at least had the servants well-trained enough to know when she didn't want to be bothered. But Zuko had asked her to come along, so she'd come. Besides, it had gotten her away from her parents, which was always a cause for mild rejoicing.

About a week after the Day of Black Sun, Mai had been home sulking on the couch, trying to get over the way Zuko had abruptly broken up with her and telling herself that things couldn't get much worse, when she'd heard a commotion at the front door… and realized that yes, things could indeed get worse. That's when she'd found out that Bumi had kicked all the Fire Nation, including her parents, out of Omashu, and they'd naturally returned to their home in the Fire Nation capital.

Since coming back to the Fire Nation with Azula and Zuko, Mai had discovered she relished having the family home basically all to herself. No overbearing mother watching her and just waiting for the chance to criticize her for the slightest flaw in her poise; no diplomat father constantly reminding her that everything she did reflected on the family honor (they had even tried to forbid her knife-throwing, until Azula had given it her royal endorsement); no bratty little brother shrieking the place down (how come her parents never shoved him into a closet until he stopped crying?).

There'd been far fewer servants than normal, too; just a few housemaids to do the cleaning and laundry, a cook for the kitchen and a single maidservant for her daily toilette. With so few people around, she'd had so much time to herself, freedom to do so much… a freedom she'd barely started exploring before they'd come back and taken over, and her life had instantly reverted back to the way it had been before Omashu had been conquered and colonized.

She'd wanted to scream at her mother, I once spent the whole day barefoot! I actually spent half an hour considering a whole new hairstyle! I went on a picnic with Zuko without a chaperone! She'd wanted to scream at her father, I bought food from a street vendor—and ate it with my bare hands instead of chopsticks! I let Zuko bring some of his servants into our home and fetch delicacies like fruit tarts with rose petals!

She'd wanted to scream to them both, Zuko and I snuggled on that couch, right in front of the servants! And two nights before he ran off to join the Avatar, we had sex in my bedroom! It was awkward and painful and messy and nothing like Ty Lee's romantic stories, but I'm not your precious and oh-so-honorable virgin anymore!

But of course she hadn't said any of that, let alone screamed it. She'd just gone back to being their dutiful daughter, bored stiff and heart-aching and hating every minute of it, until the hawk-message had arrived from her uncle the prison warden, telling her who'd just shown up at the Boiling Rock.

Rebelling against Azula and everyone else to save Zuko had been… such an incredible rush, so freeing, that she almost wouldn't have minded dying afterwards. It had been the high point of her entire existence up to that day, doing something that no one had expected of her, and doing it to save the life of the only boy she'd ever loved! She'd faced down Azula with her usual monotone, because old habits die hard, but inside she'd been almost gibbering incredulously, I DID IT! I DID IT! I DID IT!

Prison, afterwards… that hadn't been interesting at all. She and Ty Lee had shared a cell at the Boiling Rock for only one day before being shipped to other prisons back inside the Fire Nation. Mai's uncle had quietly pulled some strings for her sake, getting Mai herself assigned to a prison with a warden who owed him for some unnamed favor. It must have been a large favor, because Mai's cell had been clean and insect-free, her bed had been reasonably comfortable, and she had never been harassed by other prisoners or the prison guards. Compared to the tiny closet her parents used to lock her into for hours on end when she'd misbehaved as a child, it was almost a paradise. But they'd taken all her blades away, and given her absolutely nothing to do; she'd been bored out of her mind, so much that she wouldn't even have minded seeing her family again.

Mai knew her time in prison could have been a lot worse; she hadn't been put through any of the horrible things she'd heard about that routinely happened to female prisoners. She still wondered what had happened to Ty Lee during that month of imprisonment—why had Ty Lee joined the Kyoshi Warriors, becoming one of a group of women who all looked alike, when she'd spent years trying to make herself stand out from her six lookalike sisters? What had happened to her, to make her decide it would be a good idea to become part of another matched set?—but Ty Lee had never talked about it, and finally Mai had decided that what's done is done, and at least they were both out of prison now.

But while her parents had been so thrilled to see her on the newly crowned Firelord's arm that they'd forgiven her for all the scandal she'd recently caused the family, that hadn't meant that she was free to do whatever she pleased now. Ohhh, far from it. When she'd just been the girlfriend of the formerly banished prince (who had been welcomed home but not yet officially reinstated as the heir to the throne), life had been easy. But now that she was in the running—in fact, the sole contender—to be the next Royal Consort, she was under close scrutiny practically every moment she was awake… and probably even while she was asleep, too. The future Royal Consort had to be the model of propriety at all times, which meant chaperones had to be present to ensure her reputation was impeccable, and not damaged in any way after her recent (ahem) incident. And with Azula in an insane asylum and Ty Lee gone to Kyoshi Island, Mai couldn't get away with calling them her chaperones anymore.

Walks with Zuko? Chaperoned by her new attendant, Lady Dang. Dinners with Zuko? Chaperoned by her mother. The last picnic with Zuko? Chaperoned, and what's worse, her mother had brought Tom-Tom along on the picnic too; that had been such a horrible mood-killer that Zuko hadn't suggested another picnic since then. The visit to Ba Sing Se via airship, to celebrate the reopening of the Jasmine Dragon? Chaperoned by her father. They had managed to sneak in some time alone (with some kissing and cuddling) on that trip, because her father had gotten so 'airsick' that he'd stayed in his cabin most of the time. And he'd still been feeling queasy enough to stay in bed during the actual reopening celebration, after Zuko had pointed out that his uncle would obviously be there to prevent any impropriety. But after the party, her father had adjusted to air travel enough to be an active chaperone on the way back, which had put an end to the kissing and cuddling on dates once more.

And what's worse, Mai almost never saw Zuko outside of those carefully scheduled dates. Being the Firelord and steering the country away from war was taking up all his time, nearly every waking moment of his day. There were always documents to review and sign, relief efforts to organize, meetings with nobles and meetings with petitioners and… She was willing to bet that the Avatar and his waterbending girlfriend, who came by the capital frequently on their sky bison to report on what they'd seen and done in the colonies, saw Zuko more than she did.

Things would get better after they were married, right? She'd thought that over and over in the last few months, even though Zuko hadn't actually, officially proposed to her yet. She knew it was nearly inevitable, and after they were married, she wouldn't need a chaperone and an appointment to see her own husband. Things would get better then…

But now she wasn't so sure. The trip by airship to Omashu had taken only two days, and for her chaperone Mai had been accompanied by Lady Dang (her parents had flat-out refused to return to Omashu, after what had happened to them there.) Zuko had brought his secretary, three messenger hawks and a foot-tall stack of documents that needed reviewing and signing before being sent back to the nobles that Zuko had left temporarily in charge while he attended the summit. Mai had hoped to get in some time alone with her boyfriend during the trip, but he'd spent most of it buried under paperwork and when he was with her, Lady Dang was right there watching them like a hawk. For the evening they'd spent in transit, she'd sat and held hands with Zuko in the airship's lounge while some crewmen had played music for them. She'd wished that she could do more to comfort Zuko, who still looked so drawn and exhausted from all the work he'd been doing, and she'd whispered under cover of the singing, "It will be better after we're married."

"Agni, I hope so," Zuko had whispered back tiredly. "I'm so looking forward to having help running the country; someone I can trust administering at least a few programs for me. I'm going to go blind from all the reports I've been reading…"

Um. What?

Help running the country. Administering programs. Reading reports for him.

He thought she was going to help with his paperwork?!

That definitely wasn't what she'd been thinking. She loved Zuko, but offhand, she couldn't think of anything more dull and boring than governmental paperwork.

Right there in the airship lounge, with Lady Dang and all the crewmen looking at them both, hadn't been the right time to confront him and start straightening out each other's ideas of what their married life would be like. And they hadn't had any time alone for talking since then; the next day Zuko had spent hours doing paperwork again, dealing with everything that he could before arriving in Omashu. The only break he'd allowed himself had been when the Avatar and his Water Tribe friends had shown up and flown alongside the airship, hallooing and gaily calling out for Zuko. Ignoring his crew's anxious stares and gasps, Zuko had leaped out from the gondola onto the sky bison to talk with his friends for a while, before coming back aboard just in time for their arrival in Omashu.

But on her own, Mai had thought over Zuko's words and assumptions, and decided that his plans for what she'd do after they were married were actually reasonable. Depressing, but reasonable. If he needed help from someone he could trust implicitly, well, Mai was really his only choice. His uncle had chosen to stay in Ba Sing Se with his silly little tea shop, and his foreigner friends visited but they were never around long enough to really help him out, and even if they were, they were foreigners. No foreigner could ever really be welcome in the Fire Nation; Mai was sure that whatever they did to try to help would be rejected by the nobility, just for that reason.

The thought of spending the rest of her days reviewing endless paperwork—not even the exciting adventure stories she'd sometimes snuck into the palace library to read; instead they'd be trade agreements or crop reports or something equally boring—had Mai contemplating, just for a moment, running away to join Ty Lee on Kyoshi Island. But really, what else would there be to do with her life as the Royal Consort? Even ordering servants around got boring after a while. She could throw parties—in fact, she knew that would be expected of her too—but standing around listening to music played too slow to be at all interesting, and to nobles jockeying for status and royal favor or tossing polite and thinly veiled insults at each other, was hardly much better.

Besides, if she really was able to take care of some of Zuko's daily workload for him, then he'd be able to spend more time with her in the evenings. That would make reading through mind-numbingly boring reports more than worth it.

Once they'd reached Omashu, when they'd disembarked from the airship they'd been greeted by that crazy old king Bumi, wearing the most hideous purple-and-green outfit Mai had ever seen. They'd been shown to their rooms in the palace, gotten settled in, and attended an informal dinner with the king and the Avatar; the official state dinner wouldn't be until tomorrow, when the rest of the delegates from the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes arrived.

The dinner had become mildly interesting when that crazy old king had decided to get into a food fight with the Avatar. Everything had been served on ceramic plates, and King Bumi had started using earthbending to fling them in the Avatar's direction; that equally crazy kid had grinned and started using airbending and earthbending to stop them in midair and fling them back. Zuko had just groaned and covered his eyes, just as the waterbender had been doing while her brother had yelped in dismay about how they were wasting good food. Mai had admitted to herself that a food fight was hardly suitable for even an informal dinner… but at least it was a change from the usual boring dinners.

But when a plate full of gravy-soaked dumplings had started veering in her direction, Mai had decided that was enough. She liked the dress she was wearing, and had no desire to see it splattered with gravy. She'd flung a dagger that hit the plate just at the right angle to make it flip up and backwards, sending the gravy spattering in a different direction. Then she'd slowly and carefully lowered her arm when a dozen spears and at least a dozen hovering boulders had all been aimed straight at her by Bumi's guards.

Zuko had immediately stood up with great deliberation and an appropriately fierce glare at the guards, fists smoldering as he'd growled, "She meant no harm to King Bumi or to anyone else at this table. The dagger was aimed exactly at what it struck, the plate that might have hit her; she acted in self-defense."

"Yeah, it's okay, really!" the Avatar had said, also rising to his feet with a placating gesture. "I've seen Mai throw lots of sharp objects, and trust me, if she'd been meaning to hit Bumi she would have!"

And King Bumi hadn't seemed scared or alarmed at all; if anything, he'd seemed delighted by her move. "Oh, really?" he'd inquired with a snaggletoothed grin. "Let's see how good Lady Mai is, then. Think fast!" as he'd flung his hands out, and every single plate had gone flying off the table, most of them in different directions.

Finally, a little excitement! Mai had sprung to her feet already firing, sending out every dagger, shuriken and senbon in her sleeves and wrist launchers, and hit all but two of the plates while they were either still rising in midair or just starting to fall; then she'd spun and kicked out to send two blades from her left ankle launcher flying, and split the last two plates before they hit the ground.

Of course, by the time the last few broken plates had hit the ground, everyone at the table had been splattered with the food that had been on those plates, Mai included. But she'd found she really didn't mind that much after all; the mess had been worth it.

But that had been yesterday, and there hadn't been any excitement at all since then. Now Mai was bored, bored, bored again, staring out a window at the brown and green cityscape while wishing that the first day of the First Annual World Peace Summit was over already, so Zuko could come out and spend time with her again. The problem was, the first meeting had officially convened less than an hour ago…


"Y-you want me to leave?" There was no mistaking the shock and hurt in Aang's expression as he stared at Bumi, literally his oldest friend, and wondered what he'd just done wrong to make Bumi want to get rid of him.

"That's right. Now go on, shoo, find someplace else to be for a while," Bumi said, flapping those gnarled brown hands at him like he was a pig-chicken crowding too close to the feed bucket. "But you can leave your girlfriend here in your place."

Ordinarily, Aang would have jumped for joy at the chance to leave a meeting as stuffy and boring as this one… at almost any political meeting at all, really. But he had to ask, "But… why? What did I do wrong?"

"Nothing, yet… but we have a problem with you, Aang. You're far too nice, and particularly far too nice to the Firelord," as Bumi pointed to where Zuko was sitting just a few feet away, looking just as shocked as Aang felt. "Twice since we started this meeting, you've given your support to his ideas for restitution for some of the damage the Fire Nation did during the war."

"Yes, because they're good ideas!"

"As it happens, they are good ideas. But that doesn't change the fact that the Avatar is officially supporting the Firelord!" Bumi looked indignant. "How can the rest of us tear him to ribbons in revenge for what his nation did to ours, if you're right here defending your firebending teacher?"

Chief Arnook, who had been sipping from his teacup as Bumi spoke, did the world's biggest spit-take and sprayed tea all across his table and his closest aide. Every other delegate in the room reacted with shock at Bumi's words as well… a few of them, with also somewhat guilty expressions, as if Bumi had only voiced exactly what they'd been thinking.

Aang gave everyone The Frown; he'd practiced it in a mirror, and it was the closest he could come to the expression Katara used to give him when he'd been slacking off on his waterbending practice. "If that's how most of you feel, then I should definitely stay right here. This is supposed to be a Peace Summit, not a return to war! Revenge is never the right answer!"

Chief Hakoda stood up with dignity and declared, "King Bumi does not speak for all the delegates; certainly not for the Southern Water Tribe. My people were decimated during the war, but I did not come here seeking revenge. I actually took up arms in battle, unlike many of the people in this room," as his gaze coolly swept over them all, "and I know better than most that wreaking vengeance only leads to more deaths on both sides, instead of peace."

Several people looked uncomfortable at the chief's words, a few even giving him covert glares of resentment at the pointed reminder that they had never even come close to a battlefield, letting commoners do their fighting for them, and would have no real response if they were outright accused of cowardice. Zuko stood up and gave a short bow of respect to Hakoda, saying quietly, "Wise words, from a wise ruler of men." Hakoda gave a short bow in return.

Then Zuko turned to Aang and said with resolve, "But King Bumi was right, in that you can't defend me to everyone just because I'm your friend and your firebending teacher. The Avatar is the Balance between the nations; favoring any one of them over the others will upset the balance, when we're still working on restoring it."

"Which is why you should leave, Aang," Bumi put in again. "You have the admirable habit of sticking up for your friends, but that will only get in the way of progress here. Let young Zuko take his lumps for his country; he looks man enough to handle it. But your girlfriend Katara can stay here and be your eyes and ears for all the meetings; she can report to you later on the proceedings, and how well or poorly your fiery friend was treated in your absence."

Katara stood up and nodded acknowledgment of Bumi's words, then turned to Aang and said reassuringly, "It will be all right, Aang. I can speak up on your behalf if they start getting too nasty with Zuko."

One of the Earth Kingdom officials from Ba Sing Se gave a quiet but clearly scornful snort and muttered to his neighbor, "Giving a mere girl the right to represent the Avatar, and speak in an international summit?"

His words weren't quiet enough. Katara flushed and opened her mouth in indignation, but before she could say anything the elder sitting between Chiefs Arnook and Hakoda stood up. Master Pakku gave the official a literally icy glare as he growled, "That 'mere girl' is a waterbending master and warrior in her own right! If you have an issue with my former student, I'll be happy to address it with you in any arena of your choosing. Not that I expect you to actually take me up on that, with your hands that have probably never lifted anything more dangerous than chopsticks to stuff your face with…"

Now it was the official's turn to flush red, but instead of speaking up for himself he shrank back in the face of outright challenge. Bumi said with a dismissive wave, "Oh, don't mind him; he's one of those idiots that keep forgetting that Avatar Kyoshi was a woman."

"And so was Avatar Yangchen, the previous Air Nomad Avatar," Aang felt compelled to add. Still reluctant, but seeing the sense behind Zuko's words, Aang picked up his staff and prepared to leave, saying, "I trust you will listen to Katara, and remember that Zuko is nothing like his father, Firelord Ozai. He turned against Ozai and fought at my side for peace! And if not for his warning of Ozai's plans and his training me in firebending, most of the Earth Kingdom would have been burned to the ground on the day of Sozin's Comet."

"That's something worth reminding everyone of from time to time," Bumi agreed. "Anyway, off you go, Aang. But since I know you'll hang around Omashu anyway to get reports from Lady Katara on how the summit is progressing, I've thought of a task for you, to keep you occupied. Do you think you're up to it?"

Aang paused and gave Bumi a wary look. "You're not going to encase one of my friends in rock candy again, are you?"

"Oh, I never try the same trick twice," Bumi said with a grin. "No, no tricks at all this time; just a task that I've heard others say is impossible. But if anyone can think of a way to do it, I'm sure you can!"

"Well… let's hear it." Aang decided that if nothing else, Bumi's idea for a task would at least keep him from getting bored, waiting around all day for Katara to get out of the summit meeting.

"Lady Mai of the Fire Nation is one of the gloomiest and most perpetually bored people I've seen in all my one hundred and fourteen years. Avatar Aang, your challenge is to make her laugh out loud."

Zuko made a noise like he was choking on his own tongue, drawing all eyes in his direction; he blushed a little, but told everyone, "I've known Mai since childhood, and never—ever—heard her actually laugh out loud; usually it's an accomplishment just to get her to smile!"

"So what makes her smile?" Aang asked curiously.

"Ah-ah-ah, no cheating by getting tips from her boyfriend," Bumi said, waggling a finger at him. "And don't forget Momo! Just to make your task more challenging, you'll need to keep Momo with you at all times."

That requirement brought a smile to Aang's face. He hadn't been too happy about leaving Momo with Appa instead of bringing him into the summit meeting, but Katara had quietly but firmly insisted. She'd said that Momo's habit of scampering across tables and grabbing at things like people's refreshments and ink brushes would be disruptive and not appreciated by all the adults; evidently the lemur had gotten her into a little trouble with the Earth King's generals back in Ba Sing Se by doing just that. "Okay; I'll do it. Wish me luck, Zuko!"

"Good luck… you're going to need it," Zuko muttered behind him as he turned and almost skipped out of the room, finding himself looking forward to the challenge. What Zuko didn't know was that Air Nomads were famous for having a great sense of humor! He had tons more jokes to tell than just the ones Zuko had already heard! As he left, he heard Zuko say, "Now, on to the issue of Gaipan…"


The issue with Gaipan, an Earth Kingdom village that had a Fire Nation garrison stationed there, was that it had been nearly wiped off the map by a flood just over a year ago. It had never been a full-fledged colony, just a stop for supply trains moving through on their way to the warfront, though important enough that a garrison had been stationed there. The woods around the village had been filled with rebels that had frequently harassed the supply trains; the garrison had provided armed escort through the worst areas and occasionally captured or killed a few rebels, but had never been able to completely eliminate them. Then the nearby dam had been blown up and the village flooded, and the Earth Kingdom claimed the Fire Nation Army had done it and was responsible for all damages.

Zuko had prepared arguments against the charges, but as it turned out, he didn't have to say a word. Katara had jumped to her feet and denounced the charges, proclaiming loudly that the rebels in the area—led by Jet, of course; that hate-filled idiot was causing trouble for him even after his death—had blown up the dam, determined to flood the valley and kill everyone in it just to get rid of the Fire Nation soldiers. "How can you actually make up those charges with a straight face?" she demanded of the Earth Kingdom bureaucrat who had brought them up. "Everyone knows they're lies, and Jet blew up the dam—it was even in that stupid play, 'The Boy in the Iceberg'!"

The bureaucrat glared at her, angry that his attempts to gouge even more money out of the Fire Nation had fallen through and even angrier to be called a liar to his face, the more so because it was true. Then he acquired a nasty smirk on his face, as he said slyly, "So are you saying that the play is entirely truthful? Including how this Jet character claimed to flood the village for your sake? Or perhaps the later scene where you and the Firelord had moments of intimacy in the caverns beneath Ba Sing Se…"

Zuko winced, while Katara flushed scarlet. After a few long and painful seconds in which the temperature of the room dropped at least twenty degrees, she ground out, "No, that later scene was not at all accurate. And I never considered that bloodthirsty madman Jet my boyfriend! That play is riddled with flaws and errors, as any member of the Avatar's group will tell you. You have, perhaps, heard that Lady Toph Bei Fong is in fact female? I mentioned the play only to illustrate the sheer short-sighted idiocy of making false charges of damages done by the Fire Nation, when witnesses to the flood are present in the room! If my brother Sokka were here, he'd tell you what he told me and Aang later that day; how the Fire Nation soldiers actually saved lives with their swift and orderly evacuation of the villagers! Tell me, sir, are you disappointed that no peasants died that day, preventing you from adding charges of massacre to your list?"

Shown in front of everybody to be short-sighted and idiotic, and now facing the implied accusation that he actually cared nothing for the lives of those villagers, and was only after more money… Yep, that bureaucrat had just made himself a bad enemy. More than one, judging by the way Hakoda and Pakku were glaring at him; he was probably starting to regret attending the summit at all. But Zuko was actually a little grateful for the man's greed and stupidity, because when the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe delegates were at odds with each other, it took a little of the pressure off of him and his nation. He was determined to make reparations and restore the Fire Nation's standing in a world of peace instead of war, but so far it had proven even more difficult than he'd thought it would.

But that's what this peace summit was all about, and it was time for him earn some statesman points. "Then if the issue of Gaipan is resolved, let no more be said of it," he said magnanimously. "Instead, let us move on to other issues…"

Katara almost-but-not-quite pouted at him, for verbally stepping between her and her prey. The bureaucrat gave him a sullen look, unwilling to be grateful to his enemy for saving him from her wrath.

Just after the issue of Taku was brought up, Bumi abruptly declared a short recess to the meeting, even though they'd been talking for barely an hour so far. Servants immediately started bringing trays of refreshments in, and setting them on long tables to the side of the room. Surprised but grateful, Zuko got up and headed for the table with trays of sliced mangoes and other fruits.

Katara headed towards the food as well, and he changed course to meet up with her along the way. "Where's Sokka?" he asked her with some concern. The Water Tribe warrior had been at the informal dinner with them yesterday, but today he was notably absent from the table that the Water Tribe delegates were sitting at. "Is he sick?"

He hoped it was just a temporary illness (probably caused by eating too much), and not some family dispute that had resulted in Hakoda ordering his son to leave and not come back. Zuko liked and respected Hakoda, and he knew now that most families weren't nearly as dysfunctional as his had been, but sometimes he couldn't help worrying.

"He's fine; he's just with Toph at her new metalbending academy," Katara reassured him. "It's about three hours' flight from here, and Aang took him there after dinner last night. Toph will come up here with him in two weeks, when the summit's over."

She won't be here for the summit after all?" Zuko asked, disappointed. He'd been wistfully wishing that she'd show up too, making her usual dramatic stomping entrance into the summit, and claim a seat for herself. It wasn't just that he highly valued her ability to sort truth from lies; Team Avatar hadn't had a full reunion since their last get-together in the Jasmine Dragon, right after the war.

Katara shook her head. "Not while the delegate from Gaoling is here," as she turned her head to indicate with her chin a middle-aged man dressed in expensive silks. "That's Lao Bei Fong; Toph's father."

"Oh." Zuko winced, remembering the letter from Katara that had described Toph's reunion with her parents. To say it 'had not gone well' would be like saying his last Agni Kai had not gone well. By Katara's report, no one had been seriously injured, but the quakes had been felt all throughout Gaoling.

"Yeah," Katara agreed wryly. "Toph was all ready to come up here anyway for another confrontation, but Aang and I talked her out of it because their feud would probably end up disrupting this summit, after everything we did to help organize it."

They reached the food tables as she finished, and ran into Chang, one of Bumi's cabinet ministers. Chang cleared his throat as he was handed a bowlful of sliced fruit by a server, and said, "Esteemed Firelord… If King Bumi has displeased you with his announcement…"

"What, for the short recess?" as Zuko gestured at the food. "I wasn't expecting one to be declared so early, but I'm hardly displeased." Maybe Bumi had called for it because he'd skipped breakfast that morning; Zuko had only managed to wolf down a few bites of his own breakfast, busy with his preparations for the first summit meeting.

"Er, no, I meant… the task that he set the Avatar. To spend time attempting to please your, ah, companion, the Lady Mai."

Zuko blinked at him a few times… and then he started sniggering. Katara asked curiously, "What's funny?"

"Oh, you'll love this," he snickered, still trying not to laugh out loud. "Minister Chang seems to be worried that Aang will end up stealing Mai away from me."

Katara stared in shock for a split-second before she burst out laughing. "Not likely! Wow, that idea's almost as crazy as Bumi! …Uh, no offense," as she blushed, realizing one of Bumi's own people was present.

Minister Chang politely said that no offense was taken… and he might have actually meant it, given Chang had seen plenty of Bumi's frequent antics over the years. But still, Zuko stepped in to extricate Katara from further embarrassment and hand her a dish of mangoes, which he knew she liked.

Heading back to his seat a few minutes later, Zuko was still marveling that anyone would come up with the idea of Aang seducing Mai away from his side. In the first place, Mai was just a few months younger than Zuko while Aang was only thirteen years old; he was far too young for her to be interested in him as a boyfriend. In the second place, Aang had been raised by monks; Zuko wasn't sure Aang even knew where babies came from, let alone the finer points of seducing nobly-born ladies of the Fire Nation. And finally, as near as Zuko could tell, they had absolutely nothing in common.

It wasn't just that Aang was always smiling and laughing, while Mai didn't laugh at all and hardly ever smiled. Mai liked to play with daggers and other lethally sharp throwing weapons, and was always ready to show her uncanny accuracy to any opponent, while Aang preferred a staff when he had to fight at all. Frankly, Aang would rather dodge and run than fight in just about any conflict! Also, he was concerned about every living thing, even had a monkish vow to not eat meat. He was just about the opposite of Mai, who enjoyed a good steak almost as much as fire flakes and who had once admitted out loud that she hardly cared about anything or anyone but Zuko.

Zuko shook his head again and snorted at the thought of Aang seducing Mai away from him. Really, how crazy was that?

To be continued