Hot Gingerbread and Dynamite: Chapter One

In which, after much turbulence, Mai decides to save their marriage and a plan of action is decided upon.

After an elbow to the stomach (Zuko's), a swollen lip (Mai's), and a small span of time that was already much too long for the sanity of both parties involved - why did nudity have to be so thoroughly embarrassing? - they managed to get down to business.

It was strange, and not at all what either of them had wanted or expected it to be. Zuko had somehow concluded, based on Mai's reaction to his intrusion, that touching her at all was just as likely to hurt her as it was to comfort her, so her kept as much to himself as he possibly could. It was a very difficult thing to do, because the second he'd really started moving she'd latched onto his shoulders and held on for dear life, pulling him as close as she could. Her nails were digging painfully into his back.

When he had the nerve to groan her name – in a voice he wasn't entirely sure was his – she turned her face into his chest and bit him; clamped her teeth to the skin just below his collarbone, right above his heart. He was certain it would leave a mark, and not entirely sure he wasn't bleeding.

Strangest of all was that the feeling of her tongue dragging across the teeth marks she'd made was enough to send him careening over the edge. It was the most intense physical response she'd been inspired to the entire night, and the gesture wasn't lost on him. He forgot she was beneath him when his elbows gave, and then remembered when she began to shove at his shoulders in an effort to roll him off her already much-offended person.

Mai was just grateful it was over. She was awfully fond of Zuko – though beginning to question whether marrying him had been a completely wise decision – but she was eager to extract herself from a situation that had not been entirely satisfying. The sharp, burning sting that had blossomed between her legs had easily over-ridden any budding sensations of pleasure. Unfortunately, the bed was not quite big enough for her liking.

While she was wondering if it would be rude to move away from him - to move into her own room - Zuko reached out and caught her hand in his own, squeezing gently.

Then, not even bothering to make eye contact, choosing instead to pin the canopy's underside with a pensive stare, he said, "I think this was a mistake."

Mai stared at him for a moment before sitting up, no longer caring that she was naked and not bothering to cover herself, balled her right hand into a tight fist, and punched him as hard as the angle would allow in the hollow where his arm connected to his shoulder.

She got some satisfaction out of his girlish yelp, then swung her legs over the side of the bed and gathered the sheet up around her body.

"No!" Zuko shouted, making a half-hearted scrabble for the bedding. His arm had gone numb, and his fingers were just beginning to tingle with renewed feeling. He lost the fight, and had to pull his pillow into his lap to save his dignity – what little bit of it was left.

"No what?" Mai demanded, hauling the sheet up around her breasts and turning to face him. "No, don't take your sheet, or no, don't be insulted by the fact that you just had the indecency to tell me you thought our marriage was a bad idea after you'd had a go at me?"

"No!" Zuko repeated, beginning to look panicked. She'd never been quite so… wordy. "I didn't mean us! I just – what I meant was – maybe we –"

"You're such an ass," she muttered, standing

"Where are you going?" he asked, putting his feet on the floor, pillow still firmly in place.

"Somewhere else," she responded tartly, swallowing the lump that had risen in her throat. She'd be damned before she cried over this.

Still, it was all she could do to hold her chin up under the onslaught of emotions brought on by the feeling of his eyes on her back.

When she had fled – through the side door that led into the study and washroom, and not out into the hallway, he couldn't help but note – Zuko set fire to the drapes to make himself feel better.

When the flames had extinguished themselves, he fished around for his robe – found it under the bed – and stuffed himself into it as angrily as possible. He thought, very briefly, about going to find some poor sod to spar with, but he knew it would only inspire the kind of whispering he couldn't afford this early in his reign. Court already talked about his political prowess and his firebending abilities: they had no business gossiping about his marriage.

He lay down, and decided he might as well sleep – or pretend to sleep.

It was no use, though, because the bedding already smelled like Mai.

The washroom was dark and warm when Mai entered. She closed the door, sat down with her back pressed against the inlaid wood paneling, and took a deep breath. That was enough to quell the tears and slow her heartbeat to a passably normal rate. She combed her fingers through her tangled hair and then braided it, before unbraiding it and then braiding it again; the familiar motions helped to steady her nerves.

When she was calm, she went about soothing the little girl that still lurked somewhere deep down inside her and refused to die no matter how many poisoned barbs and honed knife-edges came her way. That tiny part of her had waited for this night, for Zuko, for as long as she had been able to appreciate what sex was supposed to be. That little girl making a commotion in her chest had prayed and prayed that things would be slow and sweet and he would be gentle and it wouldn't matter that she never finished because things would be better next time, and he would hold her this time. He wasn't supposed to say things like "I think this was a mistake." He wasn't even supposed to think them.

The sheet around her body still smelled like him – like them – and she had to choke back the lump as it suddenly reappeared at the back of her throat.

"This is silly," she chided herself, shaking out her braid and climbing to her feet, knotting the sheet to keep it in place.

It was silly. So he'd opened his mouth; so what? Zuko opened his mouth all the time, and stupider things had fallen out. He'd simply picked an inopportune time to reveal his insecurities, and that's all they were: insecurities. He would be right as rain in time, and things would be just fine between them: more than fine. Things would be wonderful. Things would be fantastic.

Well, maybe not fantastic, but then again, 'fantastic' wasn't something she'd ever needed.

This newfound knowledge, this sense of strength and self-assuredness, was more than enough to carry her out of the washroom and back through the study. It was almost enough to get her back into the bedroom.

And when her own courage failed, the courage she found in the earthenware jug residing in the corner cabinet was enough to see her through. It was rough, bitter, room temperature courage that went down hard, sat warm and heavy in her stomach, and detached her head from her body. It took the edge off both her nerves and the uncomfortably warm ball of pain still rolling around in her belly, as well as easing her suspicions that Zuko had never found her attractive, curbing the hunger that had been sneaking up on her, convincing her that not only did she need another drink – then another, and another… and then one more just for good measure - but Zuko needed one as well, and talking her into hauling the corked jug – which suddenly felt much heavier than it actually was – and one of the little saucers, all the way back into the bedroom.

How did that song go? Even the cripple forgets his hunch when he's snuggled 'side of a jug of punch…

She found Zuko in bed on his stomach, pretending to sleep. He didn't open his eyes to glance at her, or move or start breathing faster, or give any indication that he was anything but sound asleep: but Mai knew. She didn't know how, but she knew. She sidled up to what she assumed was going to be her edge of the bed from now on, sat the jug down on the nightstand with a plunk, the saucer with a little clink, and somehow managed to crawl back in beside him without losing her makeshift nightgown.

He was still ignoring her; probably figured she'd settle down and go to sleep given enough time. Well, she'd show him. She was very good at the waiting game. If he wanted to wait, then she would wait. There was no way in hell the night was going to end like this. She was going to get some enjoyment out of it, even if she had to get it at his expense.

It would worry her later, to realize that Zuko could turn her into a spiteful, vindictive, drunk shrew without so much as batting an eyelash – all he really had to do was be himself – but while she wasn't exactly drunk, so was far too inebriated to care.

Azula had always bullied people. She'd pushed Ty Lee around, picked on Mai like there was no tomorrow, and been so ruthlessly thorough at upsetting her brother that Mai had filed away some of her tricks: in case worse ever came to worse.

This one, she was proud to note, was all her own invention.

Zuko rolled over, mumbling a little, and Mai wondered if he had actually fallen asleep.

It didn't matter, of course. Asleep or not, she felt he deserved every bit of what he was about to get.

Turning back to the jug, she poured a very small portion into the saucer she'd brought out with her. Then, utilizing every espionage skill she'd ever acquired, she inched up beside him on the bed and tipped the saucer into his partly opened mouth.

Before she could back away a flailing arm caught her heavily in the left side as Zuko sat up, limbs flying every which way, to cough and hack on the burning liquid as it slid down his throat and stuck in his windpipe. He glared at her but the affect was lost through his watering eyes.

A tiny bit of sympathy finally wriggled through the wall Mai had managed to build in the last half hour, and she reached out to thump him harshly on the back. Zuko continued to glare at her, before finally choking out what sounded almost like, "why?"

"You looked like you were thirsty," she answered simply, face blank.

He stared at her for a few moments, unable to fathom how she could go from righteous anger to childish spite in such a small span of time. It probably had something to do with the jug in her right hand, from which she was now taking a generous swig.

Or it could have been the part where he'd opened his mouth before really thinking about what he was saying.

"Have you ever passed out from drinking?" she asked idly, when she'd lowered the jug and noticed his stare. He shook his head dumbly, and she said, "Me either. Have another drink," and she shoved the jug under his nose.

He took it from her, and gave it a wary stare before shaking his head again and muttering, "No thanks."

"Just take a damn drink," she said hotly, voice rising to a slightly louder level than she generally used. She might as well have shouted.

Zuko, who had not been asleep but had been dozing, was not at all prepared for the situation. He decided immediately that, thus far, marriage was proving to be more trouble than it was worth, even though being with her had been exquisite –and exquisite was not a word he used often. He decided also that, no matter what the law said about their roles, it was in his best interest to obey her. Mai never shouted and she never swore; she hardly ever spoke up about anything, except to voice her discontentment. It was painfully clear that she would make the rest of the night hell if he didn't take a drink.

So, because the option really wasn't all that bad, he tipped the jug back and took a small swallow.

"Don't be such a girl," Mai chided, so he tipped the jug back farther and took a large gulp.

"Was that so bad?" she asked, when he'd finished shuddering and the warm liquid had settled into his stomach. She was almost smiling.

And Zuko had to concede that no, it hadn't been bad at all.

When he awoke – many hours, and many drinks later – the first thing Zuko noted was that he wasn't alone in bed. Then, of course, he remembered that he had gotten married the day before, and the other body was now going to be a permanent fixture. He filed this knowledge away, and was surprised by how quickly he was able to acclimate himself to the thought. He could even imagine that, when he got used to it, it wouldn't be so startling or uncomfortable to wake up with that body pressed in close against his side, one of it's arms thrown across his stomach, breathing into his neck.

What really puzzled him, though, was the giant ink stain spread across the foot of the bed. A careful craning of his neck, and he discovered that the ink had gotten all over the floor, as well as finding a home on the toes of Mai's left foot, which was peeking out from beneath the sheet she was still wearing like a dress. There was a mostly blank roll of parchment unfurled by the ink spill; someone – he reasoned it was Mai, because even from the bed, the script looked too neat to be his own – had made what could only have been a list.

The sunlight pounding into his skull should have energized him, but all it did was make the nausea more pronounced, so Zuko rolled onto his side. When Mai protested the disruption, he hushed her by laying an arm at her waist and dropping his face into her hair, where he immediately fell back to sleep.

Mai looked about as sick he felt, when they finally got around to getting breakfast. Her eyes, like his, were bleary and blood-shot, and she didn't appear to be truly conscious. She had taken one look at the meal laid out before her, and then said, "I think I'm still drunk," before dropping her head into her hands and groaning. Zuko sat across from her, not sure whether he was drunk or asleep - because he most certainly wasn't awake.

Neither of them touched the food. Mai managed to down a cup of coffee, but Zuko stopped trying after a sip of juice sent his stomach into fresh throes of agony.

The maid who'd brought them breakfast spent most of the morning with her eyes on the floor, when she wasn't out of the room cleaning up the ink spill, changing the bedding, and putting away everything they had displaced. Mai didn't seem bothered by the other woman's presence, but all her quiet fluttering unnerved Zuko, who hadn't been around female servants since his mother's demise. He was thankful when Mai finally dismissed her.

"Is she yours?" Zuko asked, by way of making conversation. His wife gave him a tired glance over the uneaten food.

"Maybe," she answered, giving her plate one last look before shoving it aside. "I don't really remember right now. What'd she look like?"

"I don't know," was his rather obstinate response. "All the maids look the same to me."

For some reason this answer seemed to please her, and they spent the remainder of the morning in a silence that was almost companionable as Zuko tried, in vain, to choke down even a small bite.

Finally, Mai rose and said, "I'm going to lay down."

Zuko nodded sleepily, and followed her back into his bedroom, where he kicked off his slippers and was already laying down before he realized she was walking toward the door.

"Where are you going?" he asked, immediately feeling embarrassed for seeming so needy.

She stopped, her hand on the large brass ring, and answered without turning around, "My room."

Zuko stayed silent, and Mai let her hand fall from the ring.

"Do you want me to stay?" she asked lightly, trying to push down the heat rising in her cheeks, and the tiny little thrill that was able to break through the pounding in her head and the churning in her stomach.

Zuko stared at her back for a few moments, unsure of how he should answer. The minute she left his presence he knew he would stop thinking of her as Mai, his wife, and start thinking of her as Mai, that quiet girl who sometimes blushed when he looked at her. On the one hand, he felt that he owed it to her to ask her to stay. On the other hand, there was still awkwardness between them that last night had only magnified. He settled for the middle ground, and asked, as dispassionately as possible "Do you want to stay?"

"I know what I want," she responded with something that almost bordered on zeal. Then turning to face him, she asked again, "What do you want?"

He couldn't turn away from her. This was a test: of what kind, he didn't know, but he was sure that if he looked away first something awful would happen. He would probably explode.

"Stay," Zuko said finally, watching as the lines of her shoulders relaxed and for the first time in days she looked almost happy.

She settled next to him in the bed with only a minor amount of fuss, and after what appeared to be a very violent mental debate – that left her flushed, and unable to meet his gaze – Mai cuddled up next to him like she'd done earlier, and pulled his arm around her shoulders, tucking his hand under her chin.

A few minutes later, she realized that the only reason she'd been able to stomach the spooning last night was because she'd been drunk and, she reasoned, probably would have spooned with a porcupig if it had laid down next to her. The position might have been comfortable if only she'd been used to the extra body heat and the odd angle her head was at when resting on his shoulder, and if he didn't breath into her neck, and if he stopped shifting around.

"Hey," Zuko said softly, leaning across her to pull a small roll of parchment off the bed stand she had been staring at for the last twenty minutes. The arm beneath her head moved to help his other hand unfurl the loops of paper, so that she found herself nestled securely in the circle of his arms.

He didn't seem to notice when she stopped breathing, trying her hardest not to let him know how much she was enjoying the feeling of being completely surrounded by him. He was too busy reading through the very odd list: it was, as he'd figured, the one that had been laying by the bed that morning.

"Look at this," he said, shaking the paper to get her attention, as if he could somehow tell she wasn't reading even though it was less than a foot in front of her. "Is that your handwriting?"

"Yes," she responded, grabbing the edge of the paper to steady it so she could read it. She ended up elbowing him in the stomach.

The heading read "Things to Do," and was followed by a series of bullet points that included activities like "spit off a bridge into a crowd," "mud fight," "cross-dress," and other items of the like: strange things people thought about doing but never did for posterity's sake.

Mai snorted, and pointed to the seventh item on the list. "Whose idea was that?" she asked, tilting her head back to gaze at him.

"It's your handwriting," he groused, blushing. The item read, "do it in the stables."

"How about that?" she continued, pointing to the fourth item.

This one read "skinny dip."

"I'm not eating a bug," Mai said blankly, referring to item nine.

"Who says we're going to do any of these things?" Zuko asked, dropping his head back onto the pillow and handing the scroll off to Mai, who sat up to read it over again.

"It's my handwriting," she shot back. "Whoever said anything about "we?"

Zuko stared at her for a moment, before closing his eyes and confessing, "I've always wanted to eat an entire pie by myself."

Mai stared at him for a long moment, then glanced down at the list. Sure enough, item five was "eat entire pie," and an idea that had been brewing in her mind finally found it's way to her mouth.

"We should do it," she said evenly, laying the list on her pillow where she could look at it and Zuko at the same time. "It's a "to-do" list. Let's do it."

"We made this when we were drunk," he reminded her, pushing himself up on his elbows and giving her a funny look. Mai was being particularly unMai-ish. He hoped it was the hangover, and not the marriage. The years would be very long indeed if she was going to act funny every morning.

"Think about it," she argued, stretching out next to him, leaning on her arms. "How…"she continued, pausing to exhale and looking down at the bed. "How well do we really know eachother? We're- we're married. Married, Zuko."

She looked at him like she had when she'd demanded he have a drink, and she hadn't said his name all morning.

"Everything on the list?" he asked, rolling onto his side to look at her.

"Everything on the list," she intoned, then added hastily, "Except eat a bug."

He gave her a small smile, before nodding his agreement. She smiled back, then lay down again and buried her face in the corner of his pillow, close enough that all he needed to do to kiss her was turn his head.

He didn't kiss her, but the fact that he felt the urge at all was comforting.

And he couldn't help but note that she hadn't ruled out the skinny-dipping and the stable.

AN: This is the only warning I'm going to give: it's rated M for specific reasons. There WILL be sex, and probably some violence and drug use. You were warned. Now, Chapter One got up so quickly because the Prologue was actually written about a week ago but, due to a very strange bet, I could not post it before posting something else first. Don't expect any updates for at least two weeks, depending on how things go on the show and in my home. I plan to finish this though, and it has a much clearer plot than anything else I've written for the fandom, so it's completion shouldn't be a problem. I hope you all enjoyed, and that you continue to read.