Zuko stared out over the balcony to his room, taking a deep breath of the morning air. It was the first time in a long while that he'd woken early of his own accord without having to worry about a servant rushing in to tell him he was to get up for some meeting or another, and without the want for a few more minutes of sleep. Without that kind of responsibility hanging over him, the atmosphere actually felt relaxing. It was cool out; the sun's heat hadn't quite reached the nation yet, new in its rising, and a pleasant breeze came up from below and tousled his still bed-raggled hair.
A warm hand from behind wrapped around his middle and he smiled as he felt Mai's chin come to rest on his shoulder. Her soft breath brushed against neck before she spoke. "Someone's up early," she said, stifling a yawn.
He leaned back into her, resting his hands on hers. "Did I wake you?"
"Hard not to wake up to one's head rest moving out from under them." She moved to face him, her arms now draping around his neck as she gazed into his face with a warm smile. "But no. I only just got up. Why don't you come back to bed with me? This is the first day in forever that you've had to sleep in."
"I'm not tired," he admitted. He pulled her close to him and she resigned to his touch. It'd been almost six months since they'd wed and he already couldn't imagine what life would be without her by his side. He felt… whole with her around. A part of him that he hadn't realized was missing before was now in place. He was complete. And it was good to see her in a better mood. These last few weeks had her temper as brittle as a frozen twig.
With another yawn, this one not curbed in any way, she managed to say, "Well I am. For once there isn't an annoying servant coming in waking us both up. I'm going back to sleep." They kissed for a moment before she pulled away and moved back to the bed, Zuko watching her as she went. Her night-robe was wrapped loosely around her person, the dark purpled sleeves hanging down past her shoulders so that soft skin was exposed.
After she'd slipped into bed, he turned back to the sky. The sun was higher now and the dew on the lawn below was already disappearing in the approaching heat. He could make out some of his guard walking directly below him in the courtyard.
He moved from the balcony to the vanity, staring into the mirror that lay propped against the wall. His hair, as he'd assumed, was disheveled with sleep, and he ran his hand through it in the hopes that it would settle on its own but to no avail. After several more tries, he gave up and went back to looking at himself. The bags under his eyes were less prominent now that he'd had a good night's sleep, but they were still noticeable. No helping that.
He'd slept with only his lower robe on last night, his upper torso exposed. It was too hot at night to sleep with full attire and Mai didn't enjoy waking up "in puddles of his sweat" as she liked to say. If Aang were to come to the palace unannounced, as he'd done a handful of times before, would he notice anything different? His hair was longer, if that counted for anything, but the Gaang had often pointed out how unpredictable it was. Did he look stronger? More like a Firelord, whatever that was supposed to look like? He hated to admit it, but he was starting to look more and more like his father with each passing year.
A noise behind him made him turn around to see Mai sitting up in bed. She stared at the floor for a minute, holding her stomach. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"It's nothing." When she looked up and saw the worry on his face, she added, "It's just a little stomach ache." To which he relented a little.
"Want me to get the physician?"
"That would be pointless. The man doesn't need you calling him in every time I have a stubbed toe or minor ache. But I wouldn't mind some chamomile tea."
He frowned, but nodded. "All right."
There were two servants down the hall when he opened the chamber door, and he beckoned one over with an imperious wave.
"Good morning, mi'lord. What can I do for you?" the man asked when he reached him, bowing deeply before making eye-contact. He reminded Zuko of a fugu fish – everything about him was pointed except for his attitude, which resembled something more of a subservient koala-sheep; his brown hair poked out from under his servant's cap and his bristly mustache looked capable of stabbing anyone who came too close. Even his nose was jagged, like a beak.
"Chamomile tea. For Mai," Zuko stated somewhat hastily.
The servant bowed again, and without lifting his head, asked, "And anything for you?"
Zuko didn't wait to see the man off, closing the door instead and returning his attention to Mai. "They're bringing it now," he said. He moved to the bed and sat beside her. She already looked better than she had a few seconds ago, the color coming back to her face. She wasn't holding her stomach anymore, either.
"My body's apparently sick of getting up so early," Mai said with a wry smile as she leaned against his shoulder and stared out at the wall.
"Go back to sleep, then." If she was getting sick from lack of sleep, why would she stay up?
"Ha. I tried." Her hand went to his chest and she gave him a light shove, prompting him onto his back, then she bent over him and her long black hair fell down around his face, encasing him. "Guess it's not as easy to fall back asleep when I know you're awake and wandering around."
He reached up and grabbed her shoulders, pulling her down to him and kissing her. When done she rolled over and lay her head on his now outstretched arm, her hand splayed out over his torso. They lay like that for what felt like an eternity, listening to each other breathe, until there came a knock at the door.
It was tempting to ignore it; he was comfortable, and so was Mai. She'd managed to assuage his worry about her stomach ache. He didn't make as if to move, but at the second knock Mai sighed and sat up. "You going to get that?" she asked, looking at him.
With an inward sigh of his own, Zuko rose and went to the door, opening it and glaring angrily out at the servant who stood there with a tray in his hand.
As if he didn't notice the piercing stare his lord was giving him, the servant continued to beam and bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Some chamomile tea for the Queen Mai," he said. He made as if to come into the room, but Zuko stayed where he was.
"I'll bring it to her." He looked down at the small silver tray. There were two small porcelain cups and a small steaming kettle on it. He could smell the bitter chamomile from inside and held back from wrinkling his nose at it before taking the tray from the servant and quickly dismissing him.
Without a word he brought the tray over to the bedside table and put it down, pouring the pungent-smelling liquid into one of the cups and then handing it over to Mai, who took it rather morosely. She put the cup to her nose and screwed her face up in disgust. "Yuck."
Her face, which mirrored his own sentiments, made him chuckle. "Apparently the kitchen staff needs a few lessons from Uncle."
Mai put the cup down. "I'm not drinking that," she said. "Even if I was throwing up all over the place. It'd probably just make it worse, anyways." She got up from the bed and stretched, her robe falling even further down her arm and making his heart race and warmth spread through his middle. "Guess it's time to get up."
"Need help getting dressed?" he teased. He couldn't help himself. He came up to her and kissed her bare shoulder. But she pulled away.
"Come on, Zuko. Playtime's over." His heart sank. Not this again! But when she saw the look on his face, the corner of her mouth quirked a little and he breathed again. "Is that old scar of yours hurting you again?" she said. A sly look flashed over her features.
The old injury hadn't bothered him for over a year now, but he didn't mind playing along. "It's killing me," he said, trying to look serious as she smiled at him and went to go fetch his robes.
As the day passed on, the memory of Mai's morning hindrance was drowned out by the monotonous tasks presented to him. There were problems down by the harbor, some distant village had burned down in the unforgiving drought of the summer and was looking for compensation, endless paperwork needed to be looked over and approved – or rejected. By the time the day had ended, and a good portion of the night, he'd completely forgotten about it.
So much for that good night's sleep last night, he thought, rubbing his temple as he made his way down the private hall that led to his room. He was completely drained. It'd been an effort just to climb the stairs.
The hallway was dark except for some flickering light scattered here and there along the walls where the low-lit torches rested. The dark-colored walls absorbed any glow that might have wanted to wander further away. He didn't even acknowledge the two guards standing right outside of his room, though he did see them nod a greeting and mutter, "My lord.." as he passed.
His room was much brighter, all torches lit and the candled chandelier overhead shining down on everything. Mai was reclined in the settee against the wall near the window some eight feet away, fingering a bowl of fruit in her lap with disinterest. She looked up when he came in and let out a sigh of relief. "It's about time," she said. She put the bowl on the floor and stood, coming over to kiss him lightly on the cheek. "I was getting bored."
He smiled as he held her. "Aren't you always bored?"
She pulled back and gave a sly grin. "Not when you're around," she said, running her finger up his cheek.
He turned his attention to the bowl. "Have you eaten yet?" he asked. The fruit looked untouched, peeled ash bananas slowly going brown and various slices of apples and pears hanging out over the rim. Since when did she even like ash bananas?
"I thought I'd wait for you," she said, following his gaze. "But I didn't know when you would be done so I had the servants bring me some fruit while I waited." At his silent prompting she continued with a shrug: "I realized that I wasn't in the mood for fruit."
The thought of all the work the servants had gone through, just to have the fruit go to waste, made him laugh. That's just like Mai, he thought to himself. Calling the servants from the other side of the palace just to pick up something she'd dropped at her feet was just one of the many things she liked to do for fun. "So what are you in the mood for?" he asked. They'd slowly been making their way over to the settee, and now they sat, Mai curling up against him like cat.
"I'm actually not that hungry," she said, her voice dropping back down into its bored tone. "I'll have whatever you have."
So they eventually settled on roasted komodo chicken, but after the food was brought and Mai picked at it tentatively where she sat, she came to the conclusion that she still wasn't hungry. "It's hard to eat when it's so hot out," she complained dully. She sat further back on the settee. "I'll make up for it with a big breakfast."
Zuko looked at her, a little concerned. She'd never skipped a meal before. But it was true that it was rather hot tonight, and he could understand the stifling heat making it impossible to think of food. Even he was having trouble eating all of his meal. So he didn't say anything.
The bright sun was what woke him the next morning. It shone down on his eyes like a raging beacon and he groaned and covered them with his arm. His eyelids felt heavy and he couldn't bring himself to rolling over. Why did morning have to come so quickly? He didn't mind when it came on his own time. Today he wished it would go away.
Try as he might, though, he couldn't drop back down into sleep, and he cursed under his breath at the realization. I'd rather rise with the moon like a waterbender right now, he thought as he forced his eyes open.
It was later than when he'd woken yesterday, but still early. The sun's light came in through the open window and onto the bed, setting the canopy ablaze with bright reds. The rest of the room was softly tinted, fresh and new as the morning. Only a few birds outside greeted the dawn. With another silent groan he sat up, moving his legs out over the bed. From behind him he felt Mai stir.
"Really, Zuko," came her voice after a minute, hoarse with sleep but still bitter with sarcasm. "I love only getting four hours of sleep. Thanks for waking me up so that I didn't overdo it."
"I didn't mean to wake you up," he said, irritated. Lack of sleep and a rude awakening left him finding it hard to curb the temper rumbling just beneath the surface. "Go back to sleep."
"No." He heard her sit up. "I'm hungry."
"Why complain about being tired, then?" he snapped, standing up and turning to look at her.
"Just get me some food."
"Fine." He moved away from the bed in exasperation. When he stepped out into the hall, the same servant from yesterday stood a few paces away and came forward without his having to ask. The two guards from last night were gone, replaced by two others who were standing at the end of the hall. By the time he'd made the command for breakfast, his mind was awake enough for him to think clearly, and his anger ebbed down when he came back into the room.
When he looked around, Mai was already getting dressed, the same unhappy smile on her face that she'd woken up with as she pulled on her red silk Fire Lady robes. Despite the incense that was radiating off of her, he couldn't help but feel a strong sense of pride and admiration. She's so beautiful, he thought despite himself.
He knew she knew he was watching her, but she ignored him deliberately and walked over to the mirror to start on her hair. Only when she was done did she turn to face him, looking him up and down. "So you're going around half naked for the rest of the day?" she said, irritation hidden underneath her seemingly uninterested tone, and he looked down at himself in surprise. He'd been so caught up in watching her.. "Or are you waiting for the servants to dress you?"
By the looks of it, she was going to be acting like this all day, and he couldn't help but feel a little disappointed, also a little angry. "I was just getting ready," he muttered, stepping over to where his robes hung and starting to put them on.
Breakfast made a bigger turn for the worst after Mai's mysterious nausea returned. They'd been eating in annoyed silence when Mai suddenly put the portion of food she'd brought to her mouth down, her expression drawn tight.
"Not hungry again?" he asked a little bitterly. When she didn't respond he looked back up and felt his irritation melt away. Her face was as pale as her plate. "Mai?"
"Maybe I actually would be willing to drink that terrible tea," was all she said before starting to rise. He was on his feet before she'd made it completely to hers, helping her up.
As if sensing his onslaught of apprehension, or maybe a little annoyed with his thinking she couldn't get up on her own, Mai frowned at him. "It's just an upset stomach like yesterday, Zuko. I'm not crippled, I'm fine." But a moment later that 'fine' lay splattered all over the floor, along with what little breakfast she had eaten.
"You should lie down," he said, leading her to the bed and making sure to avoid the imposing 'puddle', and she did, which told him her nausea was apparently bad enough for her to submit to at least this bit of advice.
She looked down at the mess she'd made and shuddered. "Ug. Disgusting. I need a bath."
Leave it to Mai to think about her cleanliness over being sick. He frowned as he stood over her. "Maybe later."
She leaned back into the pillows, eyes closed as she rubbed her stomach. "Have the servants get the water ready for me. And have them pick up that mess before I throw up again."
When afternoon came, he hadn't received any word from the servants. Mai must have not had any more incidents. But that left him perplexed. He didn't know of any illness that came and went like that. Had she picked it up from someone? Maybe she is just tired. She went to bed the same time as he did practically every night, and that was late, and woke up with him in the morning. The Spirits knew how exhausted he felt. I'll have to tell her not to wait around for me at night.
The halls were silent this time of day, and the main foyer stood empty but for a few guards near the door. Zuko headed to the right of the entrance, down a long passage lined with wide screened windows and overhanging curtains of red. His echoing footsteps followed him until he reached the end and turned onto a carpeted corridor with several doors spread down its length. The last entryway, which was where he was headed, opened to a large chamber that eventually led out to the gardens from the back.
It was warm outside. The moment he stepped out the heat started in at him from all sides, soaking in through his heavy robes. It threatened to suffocate him, sudden as it was, but he embraced the energy with a deep breath and let it merge with his chi. A firebender got their energy from the sun, and he was going to store as much of it as he could for the coming stress.
A glance around showed him nothing out of the ordinary; the trees and bushes quivered with the slight wind; a few birds took shelter from the sweltering heat in the branches. Some ways off he could make out the turtle-duck pond, two or three of the said ducks floating lazily across its surface and quacking to one another. If Mai were out, she would have been there, sitting beneath their favorite tree. But there was no sign of her. It was possible she was back in their chamber, having lunch, but he hadn't seen any servants heading up that way with food.
Once back inside, he waved down one of the staff and asked of her whereabouts.
"Lady Mai, Lord Zuko?" the sentinel repeated. He wore a surprised expression and adjusted his helmet under his harm. Zuko didn't know his name, but he looked to be only a few years older than himself. His long black hair was wet with sweat, top-knot slightly askew. "I believe she's training in the weapons gallery. At least, that's where I saw her heading earlier."
So it was with a lighter heart that he headed for the gallery. He mentally chided himself for not having thought of it himself; Mai was easily bored and often practiced with her knives when she grew too restless – which was often. It should have been one of the first places he checked.
The weapons gallery was located on the first floor of the palace, where the weapons were stored for the palace guard and where practice could take place for those off-duty or needing better training from the higher generals. It was also where Mai liked to go to be alone – no one dared be around when she was in a bad mood and throwing sharp objects. Even Zuko was a little hesitant at times to intrude, but at the moment he had no idea if she was there because she was, in fact, in a bad mood, or because she wanted to blow off some energy and keep up with her precision.
His answer to that question came rather abruptly. Before he had taken more than two steps into the room there was a sharp whirring and a thud as something whizzed by his head and planted itself in the wood of the door frame. He stared at the blade, eyes wide in mild shock, then looked out at the center of the room where Mai stood facing him, arm still held out from when she'd released the weapon. Recovering a little he said, "Good to see you're feeling better."
Mai relaxed her stance and walked toward him. "Who says I'm feeling better?" He opened his arms slightly, expecting a kiss, but she stepped right past him, yanked the knife out of the frame, and went back to where she'd been standing when he'd come in.
Blinking, he dropped his arms back to his sides. "So… you're not feeling better?" She looked better, though now that he looked more closely at her he noticed a tight edge to her set face, as if she were straining at keeping her inner emotions in check. Oh, great. She's angry. Of course it would be his luck to walk in on her when she was upset. Closer inspection showed the farthest wall littered with knives and indents from previous tosses. To think that over a year ago he'd been unable to read any emotions from her at all. Maybe he was rubbing off on her.
She didn't answer, instead choosing to let loose another volley of attacks, this time aimed at the head of one of the mannequins near the back of the room. He inwardly winced at the force behind it as the dummy all but fell to the floor, glad he wasn't whatever imaginary enemy she had made in her head.
There were several more minutes of silence, the air pulled tight with a silence so thick that Zuko had no doubt any attempts on his part to speak would be impossible. It would smother his words in an instant. Mai was going through a great deal to ignore him, focusing on her tosses, aiming at imaginary targets on the wall. When the friction grew so tight he thought he might suffocate, Mai finally sighed and cast the knife she'd been about to throw at the wall into the floor. "Can't you just leave me alone?" she said, whirling around and glaring at him, taking him by surprise. "You came to see if I was feeling better, I'm clearly not throwing up all over the place. Go stand around like a dumb ostrich-horse somewhere else."
The suddenness of her vehemence left him blank, but all too soon his own temper flared up in his defense. "I came to see you. It's what husbands do." What was wrong with wanting her company?
"Maybe dumb husbands who don't think their wives can go without them for more than five minutes. All I did was get a little sick this morning and you're treating me like I'm dying and should lie in bed all month."
What? "I haven't done anything like that. And it's not a crime to worry about you when you've been sick."
"You didn't seem too worried about me when you were off with your friends while I was in prison," she said, her eyes blazing. "Why should my being sick bother you at all?"
"Because—" He stopped. "Wait, what?" He stared at her, suddenly lost. Prison?
"Your nation's more important to you than I am, so why don't you go and sit on your throne and stop bothering me?" The words coming out of her mouth made no sense. He felt like he'd stepped into some kind of alternate dimension where his rational mind couldn't keep up. She was being unfair, and it had come right out of the blue. She might as well have slapped him across the face.
He wanted to back down, knew he should, but for some reason his feet stayed planted where they were and words were coming out of his mouth before he could stop himself. "Mai, what are you talking about? That was over a year ago."
But she wasn't listening. "Clearly you're as deaf as you are stupid," she snapped.
Stop talking to her! his mind screamed. She's not thinking straight. But even as he thought this more words were spilling out, his pride taking control of his mouth. "You didn't have to get arrested. We never asked for your help, we were doing fine on our own." What was he saying? Stop talking, stop talking!
Mai was quiet for a moment, staring at him with narrowed eyes. For a second he thought she was going to explode, or pin him to the wall and stab him without mercy. But instead she finally spoke, in a voice so low he had to strain his ears to hear even in the near-empty room. "Get out of here, Zuko."
That was enough for him. The tightness in his middle was easing, replaced by a horrible sickness in his heart. They'd only said a few words to each other but he felt like he'd gone and dumped a bucket of alcohol over some unexplainable wound. I'm so stupid… he thought miserably as he turned and left the room without another word.
Mai watched Zuko leave with little satisfaction. His words rang in her ears and stung her like thousands of little knives. Her insides felt jumbled and hot, as if someone had rearranged them and set them on fire. Her mind was even worse. She couldn't get a good grasp on her thoughts or her emotions and it irritated her. And why was she breathing so heavily? She felt like she'd just run a marathon.
Zuko could be so inconsiderate sometimes. He was the one treating her like an invalid, like a silly child who needed to be checked up on all the time. And then he had the nerve to say what he had when she'd asked him to leave? She almost wished he hadn't left so she could keep yelling at him, teach him a lesson. There'd been a strange disappointment in her inability to rile him up a bit more. How dare he hurt her like this?
But as the fire in her mind started to extinguish in the quiet of the room, she felt a heavy sadness looming up as if it had been waiting in a dark corner to catch her off guard. It snatched her with its sharp claws and raked at her heart. She was alone again, just as she'd wanted. She'd come here to be alone. But why now that she was alone did she feel so desolate, so remorseful? He'd deserved the lashing she'd given him.
The empty room was suddenly too much for her. Without bothering to clean up the pointed death-trap that she'd made of it, she walked out. She was never one to cry; she doubted she'd even cried as an infant, but at this moment she felt closer to crying than she ever had in her life. No tears came, just a building pressure behind her eyes that would no doubt become a headache later on. There was the urge to do … something. But what? Apologize? Yeah right.
Why do I feel like this? she thought.
She made sure to avoid any place she thought Zuko might be, cutting corners and staying to the shadows out of instinct. No servants or guards bothered her; she doubted they even saw her she was being so quiet, though it felt like her mind was screaming for all the world to hear. Yes, she'd opened up so much more since she and Zuko had married, but she'd never felt like this before. This was too much, too overwhelming. She'd never had this many emotions in her at the same time. Some of them were so foreign she didn't even know what they were.
There was some surprise when she found that her feet had led her to the kitchens' entrance. The sliding doors were closed but a variety of smells wafted from them nonetheless, making her stomach clamp like an oyster shell. The thought of eating made her nauseated. But it'd been almost an entire day since she'd put anything in her stomach, and despite its reluctance, she was hungry. Besides, nausea might drown whatever was giving her these devastating sensations.
At that moment the door to her left slid open and one of the cooks ambled out, bringing with him more smells from inside which almost made her lose her resolve. He wasn't much to look at in her opinion; rather gangly, old with peppered hair and mustache. He stopped when he saw her, bushy eyebrows lifting high onto his forehead before he fell into a clumsy bow. "Mi'lady," he said, clearly surprised but trying to hide it without much success. "To what do the kitchens owe this honored visit?"
At first she stared at him. Why else would someone come to the kitchens if not for food? "You can start by getting me something to eat," she said. She was proud to note that she managed to keep her voice dull and uninterested as always, even with the mess going on inside of herself.
"Oh." He straightened. His eyebrows were now close together in consternation, looking like a long caterpillar had crawled onto his face. "Lady Mai, you did not have to trouble yourself by coming all the way here. Were there not any servants who would assist you?"
"Is there something wrong with my wanting to come here on my own for once?" she asked, trying to keep up the bored act without snapping at him.
"No. Of course not." He bowed again, looking flustered. "What can I get for you?"
What sounded the most nauseating? She went through various foods in her head, rejecting them almost as quickly as they came. Finally a dish flashed through her mind but, to her surprise, her belly came alive with desire and not with disgust. Before she could stop herself she found herself saying, "A fruit tart. With fish."
"… Fish, mi'lady?"
"Grind it into a sauce," she continued. "And put it on the fruit tart."
The man looked at her intently. She didn't say anything, though, staring straight back at him and daring him to challenge her order. When he saw that she wasn't kidding – when was she ever? – he collected himself. "I'll prepare that for you right away," he said. "Would you like to have it brought to your quarters?"
"No. I'll wait for it here."
He nodded. "As you wish." He hesitated for a second more, then went back in through the door and disappeared from view as he slid it shut behind him.
And so she waited, arms folded as she stared off to the side in impatience. Her feelings toward the spat with Zuko had dulled behind the thought of eating the odd but strangely mouth-watering dish.
Something niggled at the back of her mind then. Strange cravings? Why did that seem familiar? And then image of her mother having an emotional breakdown over a bowl of rice and pickles suddenly flashed through her thoughts like lightning. When had that been? Some time before Tom-Tom—
Mai stopped, eyes widening slightly. Her arms came unfolded and her heart stopped. Was it possible that…
No. No. Double no.
After the horrendous upset with Mai, the day seemed to drag on even slower than usual. His thoughts kept returning to that moment, playing it over and over again. He wanted to slap himself for acting the way he had. She'd been irate with him for weeks, snapping at unexpected times and practically driving him into the ground with her temper, and he'd taken it well enough, why had he snapped this time?
The only reason he could think of as to why she was being like this with him was because he'd done something horribly wrong. He must have said something last month that had upset her and she'd let it fester inside until she was ready to blow up. She'd promised not to hold her feelings from him anymore, but she'd been doing it all her life so it would be a hard habit to break, he knew. What could he have said? What had he done?
"Lord Zuko?" The voice broke through his thoughts and he blinked, suddenly back on his throne in the conference chamber, Head Sage Xuanzang staring up at him from over a large scroll he'd lain out on the long table. All of the other Sages were looking at him, too.
Xuanzang exchanged hesitant glances with the man next to him, then said, "I asked if you would allow us to move the tomes of your father's to the Catacombs."
"Oh." Zuko suppressed the warmth rising to his cheeks. "Yes." Why was he even having this meeting so late at night? This was ridiculous. "Is that all? We've been here all night. These things could have waited until morning."
There was suddenly an intangible hum of disapproval vibrating through the room. "Matters of the Nation's records are hardly insignificant," the Head Sage said in indignation, practically puffing up like an old offended bird.
What was with everyone taking his words out of context? "I didn't say they were insignificant," he replied angrily.
"Maybe we should bring this meeting to a close," said one of the sages to Zuko's left. The young lord went to yell at him until he realized it was Shyu, one of the few sages he actually liked. He was the youngest of them, and according to Aang, the most loyal and dependable of them all. That explained why he'd been imprisoned when his father was ruling. His irritation turned to gratitude.
Xuanzang looked at Shyu with dislike but didn't object. "Of course. Since it is clearly what Firelord Zuko wishes."
The meeting broke up on a sour note, nobody saying anything, though Zuko did pass an appreciative nod to Shyu as the man stood to leave. The sage smiled warmly and winked at him, then left with the others, leaving Zuko alone in the large room.
He sat there without moving. Though the meeting was over, he suddenly felt reluctant to return to his quarters, to Mai. But it was well past moonrise and he didn't even know if she would be waiting for him, especially after today. She could be asleep.
Well, I can't just sit here all night, he thought, scowling at his trepidation. So he stood, left the room, and headed upstairs.
It took him a few minutes to step into his room. He stood just beyond the doorway, feet unmoving. It was only when he noticed the curious stares of the guards that he finally took a deep breath and stepped inside.
Mai was there, and she was awake though already in her sleeping robes. She sat waiting for him on the cushion in front of their writing desk. She seemed to snap out of a trance when he came in, and looked to him with a strangely lost expression.
At least she doesn't look angry anymore, he thought. Not knowing if he was supposed to say something or not, Zuko settled with walking to the end of the room and stripping off his robes. He was surprised when he felt her come up behind him and start to help him undress. They continued like that in silence, an unspoken apology passing between them as they worked him into his evening garments. When they'd finished, Mai broke the stillness.
"Zuko. We need to talk." He didn't answer, waiting. This was new. Was she going to yell at him now? She stopped then, as if waiting for something, then continued. "There's something I have to tell you."
There was such discomfort in her voice that he suddenly felt apprehensive. Whatever made Mai this uncomfortable couldn't be good. "What is it?" he asked, turning to face her.
She looked into each of his eyes, her own flicking back and forth as she did so. She was being indecisive about something. He could tell she came to a decision when the ambience around her loosened and she finally sighed in resignation. "I have a headache," she said, bored but matter-of-fact. Her glance moved to the floor, then she pulled away and went to the bed.
Mystified, he followed her. When she didn't make as if to say anything more, he opened his mouth to speak but she immediately cut him off without even looking at him.
"Please, Zuko. Not tonight." She sounded annoyed again as she climbed into bed. "Later."
He'd never been so confused. Her attitude was baffling and it gave him a headache. Women are crazy, he thought as he climbed in after her and doused the torches with a wave of his hand.
Mai lie in bed, listening. It took some time for Zuko to fall asleep but eventually his breathing slowed and she was left awake and alone with her thoughts. How on earth was she supposed to tell him her suspicions? It'd seemed easy enough at first. She stared up at the canopy.
She had to tell him, that she was sure of. He wasn't smart enough to figure it out on his own. But for the first time in her life, she was clueless. She had no idea how to approach the matter. Though he didn't look it, Zuko wasn't as self-secure as he wanted people to think he was, especially when it came to family matters. She couldn't blame him, what with his having a physically and emotionally abusive father and a mother who'd walked out on him at a young age. He'd told her many times his hidden fears about turning out like his father. Those fears would only increase now that…
You don't even know for sure, came a little voice in the back of her mind, but she mentally scowled at it. But I'm also not an idiot. She hated to admit it: she needed someone to talk to about this. The only person that came to mind was her mother, though – an idea which she immediately shot down. The woman had never really been there for her, not like she was for Tom-Tom. So who?
Strange as it is… I kind of wish Ty Lee was here. She rolled to her side and heaved a sigh. She had a long night ahead of her.
A boisterous chirping cut through her awareness and she opened her eyes. It was morning. The room was alight with regal reds and gold. When had she fallen asleep? She couldn't even remember having closed her eyes.
After a prolonged stretch, her arms reaching over her head and bumping against the headboard, she looked to Zuko – but he wasn't there. The covers were creased where he'd slept, the spot still warm. He hadn't been up for very long. When she sat up she saw the room was empty. Her husband was nowhere to be seen.
Her spirits drooped. This wasn't the first time she'd slept through his getting up, but for some reason she felt as though she'd been abandoned. Was he still mad about yesterday?
Holding her robes closer to her body, she got up and approached the door. She slid it open a fraction and peeked out into the hall. The guards who stood watch in the morning were in their usual positions, but other than that the place was deserted. She'd half-hoped Zuko might be out there, ordering breakfast.
Once she closed the door, she turned to frown at the room, disappointed. He didn't have any right to continue being upset with her; they'd made up last night, or so she'd thought. If anything, she was the one who had a justified excuse.
Her attention was suddenly drawn to the annoying bird perched on the sill of the balcony, still twittering away as it had when it'd woken her. Within moments it was taking off with a few missing feathers and several offended shrieks, a stiletto jutting out of the timbers it'd been sitting on.
That would teach it not to be so happy early in the morning.
It was when she went to fetch her weapon that a wave of nausea washed over her and she groaned. Not again. Yesterday her queasiness had lasted over an hour, long after Zuko had left despite her having told him otherwise. The tea she'd had the servants bring had only worked so well.
But she refused to throw up like she had. That had been disgusting and she'd had to scrub herself down until her skin was raw before she'd felt clean again. She didn't want to relive that. Besides, she didn't have anything in her stomach to throw up. The fishy fruit tarts she'd had yesterday would have digested long before now.
Her insides still twisted around regardless of this, as if in protest. I might just hurl my own stomach, she reflected, wincing at the thought as she staggered over to the settee and laid on it, clutching her middle. It was then that she heard the door open and she looked up. Zuko stood there in the doorway, dressed and giving her a fixed stare.
He closed the door before speaking. "It's your stomach again, isn't it?" he asked. She couldn't tell if he meant to sound irritated or if he was trying to hide his concern.
Either way she rolled her eyes and responded sarcastically, "What makes you think that?"
"Mai." He sounded exasperated, gesturing at her helplessly but at a loss for words. "You're as white as the moon!"
He had such pent up concern on his face that she thought he might explode from it and leave little pieces of worry all over the room. It kind of felt good, knowing he was so anxious for her. He was holding back, though, probably because of what she'd yelled at him for yesterday. She had to admire his effort. "So?" he repeated, incredulous. "This has been going on for three days now. Something's wrong."
"Where were you?" she asked. It was all she could think of to change the subject.
"I went and ate in the corridor," he said, gripping the bridge of his nose as he always did when frustrated. "I didn't want to wake you." When he looked back at her, his arms dropped back to his sides and his gaze turned stern. "I'm getting the physician."
Before she could even protest he'd turned and walked out the door. She wanted to get up and go after him but it was all she could do just to keep her stomach where it was supposed to be and not coming out of her mouth. She let out a frustrated growl and dropped her head back on to the arm of the settee, eyes closed. Why hadn't she stayed in bed this morning? If it wasn't for that stupid bird…
You had to tell him some time, came that voice in the back of her head again. This is as good a time as any.
Waiting. He hated waiting almost as much as he hated doing nothing. They were one in the same in his book. He stood there with his arms folded, head bowed, back pushed up against the wall just outside the door. He couldn't believe she'd kicked him out of his own room. He'd known she'd be upset with him for bringing the family doctor, but he hadn't expected her to send him away while the man looked her over. That was low.
What's taking them so long? he wondered. It felt like an eternity had passed.
He found himself snapping out of a light doze when the door finally opened. The physician came shuffling out with his small bag, smiling and muttering things under his breath. When he saw Zuko, his wrinkled smile widened.
"Ah," he said. He beamed up at him and nodded. "Very well done, Lord Zuko. Very well done. Couldn't be happier for you."
Before Zuko could respond to this perplexing statement, the old man was hobbling away down the hall, muttering again and still nodding, leaving the young lord baffled. He watched the crouched and balding doctor until he turned the corner, then came back to himself. What in the world was that all about?
When he reentered the room he found Mai sitting up in their bed, a faint blush on her cheeks as she stared off into space. Some strong-smelling tea rested on the bedside table. "You mind telling me what went on in here?" he asked as her gaze fell on him.
Her eyes locked with his and he could tell she didn't appreciate his accusing tone. "Sit down, Zuko."
She rolled her eyes. "On the bed."
He stared, then cautiously approached and sat beside her. Now that he was closer, he noticed that she seemed to have a small glow about her, and, bewildered, all he could do was look at her, heart racing. This wasn't normal.
"Just shut up and listen," she said and his mouth clamped tight in obedience. But despite her commanding his attention, it took several more minutes before she continued. "This is ridiculous," she said at long last. Looking straight into his face she opened her mouth and said, "Zuko, I'm pregnant."
It was like a great wildfire immediately rushed through his mind and burned up his basic understanding. "Pregnant?" he repeated, disoriented. He felt like he was suddenly far, far away. Nothing made sense.
"Yes." Her voice sounded far-off, as if she were on the other side of the world.
"Like… with a child?"
She glared at him. "No, Zuko," she said. "With an armadillo-bear."
Armadillo-bear? How was that possible? He gave her a blank stare.
As if just noticing how disconcerted he was, she said, "I wasn't serious."
"About the bear. I'm not pregnant with a bear."
"Oh." His senses were slowly coming back to him. Mai, pregnant? The words of the physician now made sense, and he found a heat rising to his cheeks that warmed his entire face. So that's what he'd meant…
"I know this might be a little hard for you to take in," he heard Mai saying and his attention moved back to her. "But you're going to be a father."
A father. He was going to be a father. His heart swelled in his chest until he thought he was going to asphyxiate, but then Ozai's face came crashing into his thoughts and he blanched. Great spirits of the Spirit World. "Mai, I can't be a father," he said, mind reeling. "I'm too temperamental, too hotheaded. What if I—"
Mai's hand on his face brought him falling back into the present and he found his head being turned to face hers. She was frowning at him, staring through him and into him. "Stop that," she said. He was startled by the vehemence in her voice. Then her face softened and she added, as if having read his thoughts, "You're nothing like Ozai."
"Zuko." She pulled him forward by the collar of his robe and kissed him. When they eventually pulled apart she continued, "You're not the only one who had a terrible parent. I had two, remember?"
Guilt washed over him. He'd forgotten. He opened his mouth to apologize but she cut him off.
"Don't apologize," she said. "The point I'm trying to make is that we both had a parent or parents that we're not proud of. That doesn't mean we're going to be like them. I don't plan on raising our child the way my parents raised me. In fact, I'm going to make sure I damn well do the opposite."
He blinked. She was right.
"And you," she continued, "had better not be an ass like your father and burn our child."
His stomach curled in alarm. "I would never do that."
"So stop worrying." She smiled warmly at him. "The baby won't come until several more months from now, anyway. We've plenty of time to get ready to prepare for your little heir."
As they hugged, he felt his heart swelling with pride and happiness again and a smile crept onto his face. He even felt tears pricking the sides of his eyes. A father. He was going to be a father. And Mai a mother. He couldn't believe it. He couldn't wait to tell Uncle. To tell the world.
"Ug. Now get me a bucket or something," Mai said into his ear. "I'm about to puke up my insides."