Cadence paced worriedly around the apartment. Today was Zuko's first day back on his feet, and he was once more serving tea in the shop. He seemed more at peace with himself now, though still not completely recovered. However, he was insistent that she not hover over him like a mother hen with a lone chick. Iroh agreed with that assessment, and Cadence was left to her own devices. The one time she'd projected over to look in on him, she'd found it amusing that he didn't seem to mind Jin hovering over him worriedly. She was glad to see his heart opening up that way.
As she wandered over to the desk, however, she noticed something that both surprised and concerned her. The heartfire pouch had been left on his desk, and it had ejected a letter. Confused, she picked it up, becoming more confused to discover it was Zuko's letter to Mai.
I truly am the traitor now that Azula named me, and the refugee I have pretended to be. I had a chance to choose...to be a good Prince, or to be a good person, and I made the choice I could live with, though it tears me apart to have done so. Prince Zuko is no more.
As things are, I can never return to the Fire Nation...or to you. So I do the only thing I can. Say goodbye.
I won't ask you to forgive me for this. I can't even forgive myself for how this will hurt you. And part of me hopes you don't. Better to die by your enraged hands then to fall into Azula's.
Cadence sighed softly. "Oh, Zuko..." she murmured, shaking her head. Turning the letter over, she found a different message scored on the back, the calligraphy showing barely contained fury in the writing.
I will find you.
If I have to tear Ba Sing Se apart stone by stone, I will find you.
And you will regret this if you don't take this back the moment you see this.
Rolling her eyes, Cadence realized it was time to do damage control. "Boys," she muttered, rolling her eyes at Zuko's stupid attempt to be noble. Taking another parchment, she penned a message.
Meet me at the restaurant three doors down from The Jasmine Dragon.
With that written, she slipped it into the pouch, watching as the smoke flowed towards the palace. "Hmm...interesting." Turning, she made her way towards the restaurant.
Cadence wasn't surprised that she didn't have to wait long for Mai to show up. She was a bit surprised at the disguise, however. "A Kyoshi Warrior?" she murmured curiously. "You might want to be careful with that disguise. The Avatar's group knows them personally."
"I'm aware," Mai replied, taking a seat. "But why did you want to meet with me? And why here?"
"Several reasons," Cadence replied. "For one, Zuko hasn't seen your return message...and he isn't going to."
Mai's eyes narrowed dangerously. "You better have a good explanation for that," she muttered, hands slipping into her sleeves.
"Don't threaten, Mai," Cadence chided. "You have no idea how strong I've gotten since we last met face to face. Not only that, an archer that puts the Yuyan Archers to shame has an arrow trained on your heart. If you actually attack me, you'll be dead before you can make it three paces...and that's if he has to deal with you." Once Mai had relaxed, Cadence smiled. "But there's no need for such hostility. I called you here to talk."
Mai let her hands fall out of her sleeves. "Then talk," she stated.
Cadence turned towards the tea shop. "Look over there," she said softly.
As Mai looked, she saw Zuko step out to serve tea to a girl Zuko's age Mai didn't recognize...but who was obviously familiar to Zuko, if the way they chatted - and she flirted - was any sign. "Who's that?" Mai asked coldly.
"That's Jin," Cadence replied easily. "A friend of Zuko's. And if he's truly embracing this new life now, she may be more than that sometime in the future." She chuckled. "Maybe a lot sooner, if he can handle it." She frowned as she heard Mai shifting. "None of that," she chided, her horn igniting.
Mai found herself affixed to the bench by a powder blue aura. Glowering, she turned back to Cadence. "I thought you were on my side," she murmured.
To Mai's surprise, Cadence laughed in her face. "My dear girl, wherever did you get that idea?"
Mai stared. "But...the proposal-"
"I helped Zuko make things right with the girl he was smitten with," Cadence explained. "And I crafted the pouches because he was so distraught about leaving you for so long." She sat back, steepling her hooves. "And here? I gently nudged things so Zuko could make a friend of his own." She then leaned forward. "And now, I have a question for you...one I want you to ponder and decide for your own later.
"Do you love Zuko? Or do you just love being loved by him?"
"...what?" Mai asked flatly.
"It's a very simple question," Cadence replied. "It's all about what's best for him, when you get down to basics. You see...recently he underwent a serious spiritual illness. A choice he made tore his spirit apart, and it's still piecing itself back together. I won't allow anything that will run the risk of those spiritual wounds tearing open again. If I think there's anything that might risk that...I intend to deal with it most harshly..."
As she spoke, a piece of metal on Mai's outfit warped and twisted under nothing but the sheer force Cadence was bringing to bear on it with her magical aura.
"The question is...are you one of the things I have to deal with?" she murmured. "Or...are you something that will help him become whole again?" Releasing Mai, she stood up. "I have enjoyed our chat, dear. We really should do it more often." Turning, she headed back to the apartment.
Mai stayed at the table for a time, before she eventually stood up and headed back towards the palace. She was rather startled when Jin came up to walk beside her. "So you're the one Lee's still holding a torch for," she stated bluntly with a happy smile.
Seeing no reason to be less than honest - as far as it went - Mai shrugged and replied, "I was."
"Wow," Jin replied. "I figured he was important before he came here, but I didn't think he was betrothed to a noble."
Mai turned to stare at her. "What makes you think I'm a noble?" she asked calmly.
"I used to live on the outskirts of one of the larger Earth Kingdom cities," Jin answered easily. "Saw enough noble's daughters acting aloof to recognize it when I see it."
Mai said nothing in response for a time. "...Lee...seems happy," she said at last.
"He's getting there," Jin replied. "A weight seems to be lifted. I hope he's all the way better soon."
"...me too." Mai watched Jin's face for a time. "You know he's more than just a tea server."
"I know," Jin replied. "I don't need to see his scar to recognize he's marked by destiny." She sighed sadly. "Sometimes...he acts like the whole world's resting on his shoulders. He doesn't seem to know how to handle it."
"That destiny might call him back," Mai pointed out. "What will you do then?"
"Go with him," Jin replied without hesitation.
"...really?" Mai asked. "You'd leave behind everything you know, the whole life you've lived here...to go into the unknown with him?"
"If he'd let me," Jin confirmed. "I get the feeling he might not like the idea of me doing so. He'd worry I'd regret it."
Mai was silent for a time, thinking this all over. "...on an unrelated matter, what do you think of the war?" she asked.
Jin hesitated. "We're...not supposed to talk about that," she muttered, looking away.
"No one's watching us, and I won't tell anyone," Mai reassured her.
Jin was silent for a time. "...I hate the Fire Lords for starting the war," she replied softly. "And I hate the Earth Kings and the leaders of the Water Tribes for not acting in concert to stop the Fire Nation sooner, and the Avatar for vanishing for a century..." She shrugged. "But...the soldiers? The generals? They're just doing their jobs, following orders, trying to serve their countries the best way they can." She smiled softly. "Though I still have to wonder about the Prince..."
"The Prince?" Mai asked quickly.
"The Fire Prince," Jin replied. "Before the war destroyed my home, he came through once with his crew, looking for the Avatar. I only saw him from a distance...but he looked sad. I found myself wondering what he had to be sad about."
Mai was silent. "We're almost to the palace," she pointed out. "...Lee...might just want you to come with him when and if the time comes."
"Maybe you'll be there, too," Jin replied. Giving Mai an unexpectedly familiar pat, she turned and headed back towards the tea shop.
Mai was very glad that the Kyoshi Warrior makeup was so thick. It gave her plenty of time to control her blush before someone noticed.
While this particular issue was important to raise for the overall story...
The actual resolution is one that won't heavily impact the plot of the story, as long as it is resolved.
Each outcome will have different effects on that part of the story...but it won't really change all that much in the long run. Of course, I know everyone will have their own opinion on how it should turn out.
I've also discovered that I've truly enjoyed involving my readers in the writing process for little things like this. I want to know all your opinions.