Two No More
Chapter One: Only the Beginning
"I don't know why I expected things to go easily for us," Zuko whined, slipping into his old pessimistic, the world is out to get me way of thinking.
"Um, Zuko, you're being ridiculous. If I'm still not pregnant a year from now, maybe we should be concerned. So, it didn't happen on our honeymoon. It will happen soon. I feel certain of it."
"I'm sorry, Mai. I suppose I'm just a little disappointed. Now that we've decided to start a family, I'm excited…and nervous," he added.
"Don't worry," she said with a smile, placing her hand on Zuko's smooth right cheek as if calming a raging beast.
"I'll try," the Firelord agreed. "But, I don't guarantee anything."
The couple relaxed outside in the garden while Tom-Tom sat at their feet and tried his best to figure out an intricate puzzle type game. In frustration, he threw the toy and it broke into several pieces.
"Tom-Tom," Mai chastised.
Sulkily, the five year old picked up the pieces and dumped them in Zuko's lap.
"Can you fix it, Zuk? I'm sorry."
Tears filled the boy's pale gold eyes and his remorse was palpable.
"Well, let's see," Zuko pondered. "Yep, the pieces all fit back together. "
He handed the toy back to the subdued boy who took it gratefully, a smile slowly creeping back onto his face.
"It's a good idea not to throw your toys, Tom. If you're having trouble, ask someone for help. I used to have a terrible temper (Mai coughed at the phrase 'used to' and Zuko gave her a playful glare) and it got me into a lot of trouble. And I used to hate asking anyone for any kind of help. Now, I know better."
"Okay, I won't throw my toys anymore," Tom-Tom said quietly.
He looked up at the Firelord adoringly. Zuko reached over and rubbed the boys head.
"I'm hungry, Mai," the boy declared, looking to his sister.
"Well, let's go to the kitchen and find some food. It's almost lunchtime. Actually, I'm hungry too. What about you, Zuko?"
"I could eat," he said, getting up from the wrought iron bench he and Mai sat on.
"Can we have noodles? I love noodles."
"Sure," Mai acquiesced. "Noodles are doable."
"Yay," Tom-Tom shrieked. "I'll race you to the kitchen."
Tom-Tom tore down the garden path, weaving around bushes and trees, his small form soon lost in the distance.
"Thank Agni I don't have my Firelord robes on," Zuko quipped as he chased after the boy, growling low in his throat like an animal stalking its prey.
Tom-Tom heard Zuko behind him and slowed down deliberately, wanting to get caught. Zuko swooped in and scooped the boy up into his arms while pretending to bite his neck. Mai's brother squealed with delight and laughed so hard that he was breathless.
"Uncle Iroh used to chase my cousin Lu Ten and me too," Zuko told the boy with a faraway look in his eyes.
"What about your daddy? Did he chase you too?" Tom-Tom asked innocently.
"No, not my father," Zuko replied in a clipped tone.
"Oh. Know what, Zuko?"
"What?" Zuko asked.
"I like it here with you and Mai. But I wish you could come to my house sometimes. I wanna show you my room. I put all the seashells you got me by my window. Mamma says they get too dusty, but I keep them there anyway."
"Sorry, Tom-Tom, but that's probably not going to happen."
"Why?" the boy whined.
"Your sister and your mom and dad don't see eye to eye right now."
"What does that mean?"
Zuko sighed. "It means that they aren't getting along."
"I don't understand," Tom-Tom said, his brow furrowed in confusion.
"I don't either," Zuko admitted. "How about we go get those noodles?"
"Tom-Tom was pretty quiet all afternoon," Mai observed as she poured their after supper tea.
Zuko frowned. "He wants us to go to his house sometimes. I tried to explain why we won't but he doesn't get it."
"Oh," Mai sighed.
"He'll get over it," the Firelord reassured his wife of two weeks.
Zuko took his cup from Mai, set it down on the table and pulled her in for a hug.
"Yeah, he's pretty easy going most of the time," she said, her voice muffled by his shoulder.
"He's a good kid. He'll make a great uncle one day," Zuko grinned.
"Tom-Tom an uncle…that never occurred to me; he'll take the position very seriously."
"Our children, our future children are pretty lucky. They're going to have a lot more people who care then we ever did," Zuko mused.
"Mmmm," Mai agreed as she disentangled herself from Zuko and took a sip of very strong jasmine tea. "Zuko," she began her tone suddenly serious, "about the baby thing…you have a tendency to focus on something kind of intensely. Promise me you won't get all obsessive. Let's just live our lives and let everything fall into place."
Zuko thought for a moment and then nodded his head. "I promise."
Weeks passed swiftly. Zuko worked hard. The world was at peace, but almost three years after the end of the war, negotiations were still ongoing (Fire Nation colonies were a particular sticking point) and domestic reforms continued. And, much as both he and Mai disliked the social aspect of their reign, the occasional dinner for visiting dignitaries and for council members was essential. Mai did her part; she still attended many meetings, (her sharp eyes and sharper mind observing everyone), discussed treaties and reform ideas with her husband, and helped with correspondence. She held lunches for the wives of council members (why aren't there any female council members? She would ask Zuko about that), chatting amiably about gardens and fashion while resisting the urge to roll her eyes and groan.
The couple's vow to spend time together every day was still upheld, though a baby would make that more difficult. It would be time with each other and another little human. At least in their position, finding childcare when they needed some time alone would not be a problem.
Summer arrived and the weather became almost unbearably hot at times. Zuko had a light weight version of his official robes made for the sake of comfort. He didn't sit behind a wall of flames like his predecessors had, but the meeting room still grew warm and humid by midmorning.
Shutters were all thrown open, allowing inside whatever breeze there was to keep the palace air circulating. Zuko slept shirtless and Mai wore a very thin nightgown. Their comforter was discarded and thin sheets were all that was needed.
"It'll cool down soon," Zuko reassured Mai as she fanned herself vigorously. "It's hotter than usual this year and we're at the peak of summer."
"I hope so," she stated. "I hate perspiring."
Zuko chuckled. "Maybe we should go to Ember Island this weekend. What do you think? A cool sea breeze might refresh us."
Mai's eyes lit up. "That is the first good idea you've had in a while," she joked.
"Really," Zuko retorted, "is that so?"
"Oh, what about my brother, should we take him along?"
"That's fine with me," Zuko answered agreeably. "You'll have to send a note to your parents."
"I think I'll do that right now. I can't sleep anyway. Tom-Tom will be excited."
Mai got out her writing set, a gift from her uncle, and composed a brief letter to her parents, requesting permission to take Tom-Tom away for the weekend.
"I'll get this to them first thing tomorrow," she stated as she walked toward the large open window.
Zuko joined her. He stood behind his wife and wrapped his arms around her small waist, drawing her close despite the warmth. His breath moved the fine hairs at the base of her skull and tickled her skin.
"There's hardly a breeze," he complained. "I usually don't mind the heat, but this is extreme even for me."
"Maybe a cold bath will chill us down and help us sleep," Mai suggested. "I'll try anything."
Without replying, Zuko had slipped off his bottoms and walked into the bathroom.
"I guess that means he agrees," Mai drawled.
She followed her husband, pulling her nightgown over her head as she walked. Mai stepped into the tub ad shivered automatically. Zuko already sat in the shallow water. More poured into the huge tub and soon it was level with their chests. Mai dunked her head and came up breathless. Goosebumps showed on her arms. Zuko pulled her close to him and laughed in her ear.
"Feeling cold?" he asked seductively.
"Yes," Mai answered with chattering teeth. "And right now, I love it."
They sat like that for a good half hour before getting out and patting themselves semidry. The couple slid into bed naked. They were both asleep within minutes.
"I've never seen Ember Island so busy," Zuko observed. "It must be the heat."
He helped Tom-Tom off the small boat while Mai stepped gracefully onto the dock. A pair of guards stayed on the boat, ever watchful of the royal couple. Tom-Tom immediately ran to the private beach and began to wade in the water, having tossed his shoes into the warm sand.
"Just a few minutes, Tom-Tom; we'll come back to the beach after lunch."
"Aww, Mai, I don't want to eat, I want to play in the water."
"There's plenty of time for that. Lunch is all ready for us. Don't you want to see your room?"
"Fine," the boy said grudgingly.
He made his way out of the water and up the white sand, leaving wet imprints with his feet. He joined Mai and Zuko on the steep pathway to the Firelord's second home. He kept looking back at the beach, his expression wistful.
"You'll be back there in an hour, Tom-Tom," Zuko said, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder.
Once inside the ornate double doors, they headed for the kitchen where a servant bustled about busily, putting food on the cozy table set for three.
"Look, your favorite food, kiddo," Zuko declared as he pointed to the buttered noodles with cashews.
"Yummy," he replied, sliding into a chair and reaching for the bowl.
"Wash your hands first," Mai reminded, sounding every inch the mother.
Dutifully, the dark haired boy dipped his hands in the bowl of water by his place setting and wiped them off on his napkin.
"Now?" he asked.
"Now," Mai smiled.
The trio spent the afternoon at the beach, as promised. Tom-Tom and Zuko puttered about in the water, often deliberately splashing Mai who shot them glares that could rival the sharpness of her knives. She stayed under her wide red umbrella and read a book. After much wheedling, she consented to help the boys build a sandcastle. Tom-Tom found shells and pebbles to decorate their creation. Fleetingly, Mai recalled Azula destroying a child's sandcastle during their visit to Ember Island in those sweet but difficult days before Zuko left to join the avatar. She glanced at her sand covered husband. He met her eyes and nodded as if he had just had the same thought.
The boy's energy began to dwindle so they decided to go back to the house to clean up and then eat dinner. Mai's brother walked slowly up the path and then to his room. The Firelord and his wife followed. In their bedroom, Mai and Zuko performed a quick clean up before changing into light clothes.
"That was fun," Zuko stated as he approached Mai and placed a light kiss on her lips.
"It was," she agreed.
Mai adjusted her husband's scarlet sash and then slid her arms around his waist, resting her head on his chest. They stood like that for awhile, drinking in the other's presence. Zuko rubbed his hands slowly up and down Mai's back. She sighed in contentment before pulling away.
"I'd better go check on Tom-Tom," she said. "Meet you downstairs for dinner?"
They ate dinner outside in the courtyard, sitting casually on the steps, grateful for the sea breeze that at least lifted the hair off their perspiring foreheads. They ate cold food, meat and bread with fruit for dessert and lots of cold water.
"Hey, Tom," Zuko said, breaking the silence, "let's watch the sunset after dinner, okay. We'll go down to the beach."
"Yeah, you should have a swim before bed, Tom-Tom. It will cool you off."
"Mmmkay," he agreed while rubbing at his tired eyes.
Mai smirked and looked at Zuko. They knew that the boy would last another hour at most before he dropped from exhaustion.
"We can come back to the beach after Tom-Tom's in bed," Zuko whispered to Mai.
She raised her eyebrows as if to say, 'really? I know what you have in mind'.
"What?" he asked, feigning innocence.
"Nothing," she replied.
The servant collected their dishes and the three walked down to the beach. Tom-Tom walked in the middle, holding hands with both Mai and Zuko. Once the water was in sight, he broke free and dashed into the waves, splashing himself with great enthusiasm. Zuko and Mai sat on the sand and watched the huge orange sun sink into the sea. Wisps of pink and violet streaked the sky and ominous looking storm clouds were building in the south.
"Looks like we might get a storm; maybe it will break this heat," Zuko said hopefully.
Mai wiped at her brow with disgust. "Ugh, I hope so."
Tom-Tom joined them on the sand, dripping water on both of them. Zuko lay back and looked up at the sky, putting his hands behind his head, fingers linked. Tom-Tom imitated the Firelord's position and looked over at the man. Zuko gave him a smile and the boy's face lit up. When they finally stood up, Tom-Tom's back was coated with white sand.
"You'll have to back in the water and rinse that off," Mai instructed. "It's time for bed."
"Please don't make me take a bath," the boy implored as he looked at his sister.
"You can have one tomorrow. I won't tell if you don't," she joked dryly.
"Yahoo," he said in reply.
Sand off everything but his feet, the trio walked up the path to the house. The boy brushed off his feet before entering. He wandered up the staircase to his bedroom and got into his light sleep pants.
Mai and Zuko followed him upstairs to say goodnight.
"Did you have fun today?" Zuko asked as he ruffled the boy's hair affectionately.
"Yep," he answered. "It was great. Can we come again?"
Mai and Zuko exchanged a look. "As long as it's alright with your parents," Zuko qualified. "We'd love to bring you here again."
The boy yawned and turned over on his side, pushing the light sheet down around his ankles.
"G'night," he whispered.
"Goodnight, Tom-Tom," the couple said in unison.
As they left Tom-Tom's room, Mai and Zuko heard the pattering of raindrops on the tile roof. Light rain soon became heavy. It sounded like the beating of thousands of drums.
"I guess we'll have to make our fun in here," Mai drawled as she pulled Zuko into their room and shut the door with a push of her foot.
The bedroom shutters were open wide and the red curtains blew wildly in the now strong wind. The evening sky was almost purple, like a fresh bruise, and vein like forks of lightning flashed intermittently. Booming claps of thunder followed the flashes and sent shivers down Mai's spine. She loved thunderstorms, always had. The ebony haired woman stood near the window and gazed outward, entranced by the scene.
"It's amazing," she said softly, as if in awe.
Zuko moved to stand beside her and slipped his arm around her shoulders, drawing her near.
"It is," he stated all the while thinking of other lightning.
When the storm eased and a cool breeze moved the curtains more gently, the couple went to bed. They didn't sleep for quite some time.
Six weeks had passed since the couple's weekend at Ember Island. During that time they had quietly celebrated Zuko's twentieth birthday and now looked forward to Mai's nineteenth.
The woman in question sat at the desk in their bedroom, looking at her notebook. There she kept a record of her cycles so she could be accurate about any pregnancy. She had missed her period shortly after Ember Island and she was late again. Normally, her body was like a methodical machine, always performing well and on time. Mai had noticed recently that the smell and sight of eggs, a breakfast staple for her, made her nauseous. Her hands went to her abdomen and she smiled slowly.
"Zuko," she shouted in the direction of the bathroom. "I think you should send for the physician."