A/N: Okay, so this took at least a week longer than I planned. But I also wasn't expecting it to turn into a hulking monster of a chapter, so there you go.
I made a small edit to chapter 10 to make it fit better with this chapter. Also, an FYI for those who have been reading my other stuff: this story takes place in the non-Jeeko continuity.
The night was cool and quiet. Beetle-crickets chirped in the grass and the sound of gently flowing water seemed like music in the still air.
Outside the palace walls, beyond the Royal Circle and its fancy homes, there was a lovely park, shaped and manicured into a work of art. The top of a small hill in the middle of the park afforded a perfect view of the sky right above the palace.
"What's so special about coming out here in the middle of the night?" Bao Yu asked. Yi Min shook out the blanket he had been carrying over his arm and laid it down on the hill. He sat down on it and smiled, patting the empty space next to him. She smiled back and sat down, smoothing her robe out over her knees. Yi Min leaned back on his hands and looked up at the velvety black sky.
"When the heir is born, they light off fireworks," he said. "Red for a girl, gold for a boy."
"It's something that stayed around from a time when it mattered if the firstborn was a boy or a girl. They wanted the whole city to know right away if the kid could inherit or not, but now it's just a tradition."
"It doesn't really make sense, though," Bao Yu said. "It would only work if the baby was born at night and not in the middle of the day. And what if the baby didn't survive? If they lit off the fireworks anyway, that would be... awkward, to say the least."
Yi Min grinned. "They usually wait to make sure everything's all right first. And they wait until nighttime if it was during the day." He lay back on the blanket, hands behind his head. Bao Yu followed suit, resting her head on his shoulder. "My earliest memory is my mom taking me to see the fireworks the night Mad Princess Azula was born, but she was born in the middle of the day, when the sun was highest in the sky. I was about three years old then. I guess it caused a lot of gossip at the time, since they used to just do the fireworks when the heir was born, not the second child of the Firelord's second son."
"Hmm. And what if the baby isn't even born tonight? You brought me out here to lie on the grass for nothing," Bao Yu teased. Yi Min looked over at her with a smile in the corner of his mouth.
"Do I need an excuse to lie on the grass with you?"
"No." She kissed him lightly on the cheek. "But if my clothes get muddy, you owe me."
He chuckled. "Okay, whatever."
They lay in silence for a little while, just taking in the beautiful spring night and each other's company. It was already warm enough to be comfortable at night, but not so warm that midday was unbearable—that would come later, and nearly everyone agreed that such weather could take its sweet time. Especially when there were nights like these to be had.
"The Firelady's been in labor since this morning, and it's almost tomorrow already," Bao Yu said finally, a touch of concern in her voice. "I hope she's all right."
"I'm sure she's fine. Palace servants are gossips—we'd have heard if she wasn't."
"Yes, you're probably right."
The footsteps in the grass would have been inaudible at any other time of day. Yi Min sat up to see a green-robed man, almost invisible in the gloom, crossing the park on his way from the palace. Xiang.
"I'll be right back," Yi Min said to his companion before she could ask what was going on.
The earthbender had come alone. Good. And there was no one else around but Bao Yu—and even if she managed to hear, well... he'd been planning on telling her anyway. Eventually. He had to make sure her loyalties were in the right place first.
"You sure no one followed you here?" Yi Min said quietly. Xiang nodded once. "What is it, then?"
"The heir was just born a few minutes ago. A healthy baby girl—I understand there will be fireworks soon." He glanced behind him, but the sky above the palace was still empty. Yi Min couldn't quite keep the smirk from his face.
"A girl, huh? The Firelord must be over the moon."
"He is. They both are, in fact." Xiang looked back at Yi Min, his eyes glinting under the brim of his hat. "It's done. How will we proceed?"
"Just wait some more, until the Avatar and General Iroh are gone. They won't be fooled if we act while they're still here. If we act and manage to succeed, that is."
"And the Captain?"
"He has his own motivation. If you talked to him personally, or maybe sent him a note..."
"Not until I'm sure."
"He's thinking the same thing about you. He's more cautious than you are—approach him first, or you'll be fighting him for control after it's all over." Xiang's eyes disappeared again beneath his hat. His hands were hidden in his sleeves, as usual.
"I'll think about it. We have enough time."
"Don't push it too far. You know Captain Jee won't appreciate being rushed into something like this, especially considering the fact that he has plans of his own."
Yi Min nodded and rubbed his chin. "And everything else... is it ready?"
"Yes. My men are standing by for their orders."
"Good. Everything is falling into place. Excellent work."
"Thank you, sir." Xiang glanced over at Bao Yu, who was still sitting on the blanket, toying with a small flower and looking bored. "Is she a part of this?"
"Not yet. She'll have her uses."
"I see. Well, I'll leave you to your evening."
"Enjoy your state holiday, Xiang."
"Likewise." The earthbender bowed slightly, turned, and disappeared once again into the night. Yi Min returned to the blanket where Bao Yu looked up at him with a questioning face.
"What was that about?" she asked as he settled in next to her once again.
"Nothing really," he said. "Look up at the sky."
She did, and right then, a bright cluster of red fireworks exploded against the deep, moonless night.
There was a bird just outside the window.
Pale morning sunlight streamed in through the trees, spreading dappled light across the floor and illuminating the room.
Mai's hand was soft and warm in Zuko's. He stroked her fingers lightly—his own hand remembered their crushing grip from before... last night? This morning? Yesterday, or today? Time seemed to have stopped working in the way that it should. She had crushed his hand, her knuckles going white and her nails digging into his skin, and then—
Just the memory of the baby's crying made Zuko's head jerk up, but the room was quiet, a moment of peace after the birth and the excitement that followed. He could have used the time to close his eyes for a moment, like Mai had, but he couldn't. His body cried out for sleep—he hadn't even been the one to give birth, but he had still been part of it, and he had been awake for a very long time. Still, he couldn't rest. So he sat at her bedside and held her hand, trying to make sense of everything that filled his mind in bits and pieces, disjointed thoughts and emotions that would hopefully sort themselves out soon.
Mai stirred in her sleep. Her eyelids fluttered a few times. Her head rolled to one side where it rested on Zuko's other arm (which had developed pins and needles about an hour ago—he couldn't feel his hand anymore) and she gave him a tired smile.
"Hey." He brushed her bangs out of her eyes to press a kiss to her forehead. "How do you feel?"
"Like I got hit by a train," she replied in her usual deadpan. Slowly and carefully, she sat up, mercifully removing her head from Zuko's arm. Her hair was in a tangled halo around her face, which was slightly sticky-looking, and her eyes were shadowed and baggy. At that moment, Zuko could have sworn that he had never seen her looking so beautiful. "Where..."
Her mother sat nearby with a tightly swaddled bundle in her arms. She smiled—an expression that softened her usually stern face—and stood, carrying the bundle over to the side of the bed where Zuko sat.
"You didn't get to hold her earlier," she said in a low voice.
"I, uh..." Zuko looked back at Mai. His heart thudded in his chest, a combination of fear and desperate want flooding his mind at that moment. He wanted to hold her, to just reach out and take her and never let go, but at the same time, he couldn't. Terror clawed at him from the inside, threatening to overwhelm him.
No. He couldn't wimp out on this. It would be all right.
Mai just smiled instead of helping him. He gulped and looked up at her mother, nodding slightly. Before he could say anything else, she bent down and placed the baby in his arms.
"Support her head," she said in that same quiet, gentle tone that was so rare coming from her. "Be confident. Babies want to feel secure, and she's able to tell if you're nervous. Let her know that you know what you're doing."
"But I... I've never held a baby before," he said helplessly.
"You're doing fine." The older woman stroked the sleeping baby's head, which was covered in startlingly thick, downy hair, and withdrew, leaving the little family alone with each other.
Zuko hardly dared move. He didn't realize he'd been holding his breath until the baby sighed in her sleep, and he let his own breath out carefully, as if breathing too quickly would hurt her in some way.
He had never even seen a baby this new before, let alone held one. He didn't remember when Azula was born, but Uncle told him that he hadn't been allowed to see her for a few days, and he'd been very put-out. That was so long ago. And now, warm and soft in his arms—
He panicked a little when she stirred and moved around in her blankets. Mai grinned when he looked up at her. A silent plea for help hung in the air between them.
"Careful, Zuko. Babies can smell fear."
"No. I was just teasing you." She leaned forward a little. "She likes you already. Look."
Zuko looked down. The baby had freed one hand and was squeezing his thumb in her tiny fingers. Such a perfect little hand, with the tiniest pink fingernails and wrinkly pink skin.
"My grandma always told me when I was little that that's how babies give hugs," Mai said softly. "Technically, it's not true. But I like it."
"Mai," Zuko whispered. "She's so beautiful."
"Yeah." Mai stroked their daughter's silky hair and bent down to kiss her tiny nose. "She takes after you."
"I've been called many things, but I don't think 'beautiful' was one of them," he replied, trying to keep a straight face, but he couldn't. Now that the lingering fear was just a faint memory, nothing could keep the joy he felt from spilling out. Mai chuckled and kissed him softly on his grinning mouth.
"I love you."
"I love you too."
A small, disgruntled sound came from the blankets as the baby woke up from her nap. She started to fuss, and Zuko's expression turned to one of desperation. He looked down at the baby and back up at Mai, eyes wide and worried.
"Why is she crying? What did I do? What do I do now?"
"You didn't do anything. She's probably hungry. Here, I'll take her." Gently, Mai took the baby from Zuko's arms and cradled her close to her body. "Shhh. I've got you. Shhh." She looked back up when the baby settled down, tiny hands twined in a loose piece of Mai's hair. "I don't want a nurse for her," she said after a brief pause.
"A wet nurse. I don't want one for her. I'll feed her myself."
Zuko shrugged. "Okay."
"You don't think that's weird, or anything? I mean, I had a nurse, you had a nurse, everyone in our families had nurses..."
"Weird? No. Unusual, maybe, for people like us. But not weird."
"My mother's going to have a conniption," Mai muttered.
"It doesn't matter what she thinks."
"And if she gives you any trouble about it, tell me, and I'll say something to her."
"No you won't, you're terrified of her."
"...True. But I'll talk to her anyway." Zuko gave her a weary smile and kissed her temple. "This isn't something she needs to get involved in."
"No, I'll talk to her myself. I know she's not going to agree, so I've already come up with what I'll say to her." She sighed. "Hopefully I'll actually be able to get it out this time."
"You can do it."
"Yeah. I hope so."
They sat in silence for a moment. Zuko migrated from his chair to the edge of the bed and wrapped an arm around Mai's shoulders, holding her close. Mai snuggled into his embrace and they just sat together, looking down at the little princess in Mai's arms. She was awake now, looking around with bright eyes that were screwed up against the light from the window. She gave a huge yawn, blinked a few times, and squeezed one of her father's fingers in her tiny fist.
"Baby hugs," Zuko said with a smile.
"Yeah," Mai replied. "You know... we still don't have a name for her."
She smirked. "Maybe we should get on that. It's kind of important, after all."
"So... I guess your family's names are all out?"
"Yes, unless we're looking for a name that either sounds hideous or belongs to a hideous person. What about your family?"
"All we have are old-fashioned names and more names belonging to hideous people." If Zuko did his job right, heaping as much shame and dishonor as he could on their legacy, no one in the Fire Nation would want to name any more babies after the past three Firelords.
"Are they classic old-fashioned names, or the kind of old-fashioned names that were trendy when our grandparents were born but sound funny now?"
"A little of both, I guess."
"Well, we're already doing everything else differently, maybe we don't have to go with a family name at all." Mai smoothed the baby's blanket with a long, pale hand. "Maybe something about flowers. Springtime. Something about rebirth seems appropriate. Something beautiful. It would work well with the day she was born..." Suddenly, she let out a short gasp and looked sharply up at Zuko.
"I just remembered what day it is," she said.
"What day is it? Did I forget to do something? Is it Toph's birthday?"
"No, no, Toph's birthday was a couple of weeks ago, remember? You gave her all that alcohol."
"Oh, yeah..." Zuko raised his eyebrow, still confused. "So, uh, what day is it again?"
She gave him an incredulous look. "You don't remember? It's... the seventh anniversary of when you were banished."
"Yes. Seven years to the day."
"I... actually forgot," Zuko said faintly. "I can't believe it." He wasn't expecting to feel relief at this realization, but he did, a light, cool flood of it that seemed to lift a weight he hadn't known he was carrying.
"That's good," Mai said. "You don't have to remember it any more. You have better things to think about."
"Yeah." He looked down at the baby's hand, still curled tightly around his finger. "It's funny. When I was a kid, I would spend days brooding over it every year. I'm sure I was completely intolerable to everyone around me. But now... now I'm happy. I never thought I could be happy on this day."
Mai kissed him softly. "I'm sorry I brought it up."
"No, it's all right. I'm all right."
The baby started to fuss again, wiggling around in Mai's arms. Her forehead was wrinkled, apparently in frustration, and she started up a surprisingly loud cry for such a small person.
"Shhh," Mai hushed softly, rocking her back and forth. "Shhh."
"Do you need anything?"
"Can you find my mom?"
"Okay." He kissed her cheek one more time and then stood up, hesitating, not wanting to leave for even a short time. He crossed the room, looking back every few steps as if to make sure that Mai and the baby were still there.
The corridor outside the bedroom was quiet and empty.
"Lady Yao?" Zuko said tentatively. She materialized in front of him with enough speed to make him jump. "Uh... Mai needs you."
"Yes, of course." She swept over to the doorway, but before she entered, she turned back to face Zuko. "You should get some rest, Firelord. You're going to need it."
"Thank you, I will. But I have something I need to do first." He took off down the hall in the direction of an inconspicuous side door, one that let out near the servants' quarters. From there it was only a few hidden passageways and out-of-the-way paths, and he would be there. No one even needed to know that he'd left the palace.
The door was in sight—he reached out to push it open, but was stopped by a brisk cane stroke across the shins.
"Do you have to keep doing that?" Zuko said, annoyed. That hurt.
"If you're planning on leaving the palace without a security detail, yes," Captain Jee replied from where he sat, stretching his bad leg and apparently making sure no one could escape out that door.
"I'm in plain clothes and I know a secret way. No one will notice me leaving or coming back in."
"That's the last thing you say before the city guards bring in your remains in a sack for your widow." He stood and moved toward the door as well. Zuko frowned
"I'm doing this alone."
"Right, sir. I'm just going along in case they need a witness at your murderer's trial."
Zuko sighed. "Whatever." He walked out into the sunshine, which was bright enough to make his eyes water—it was going to be a beautiful day. It was a beautiful day already.
But Zuko was headed to the one place that always blocked out all beauty and cheer—the Capital Prison Tower.
"I need a palace nurse," Mai said to her mother while the baby sucked greedily on her fingertip. Her mother gave a nod of approval.
"Yes, she's getting hungry, isn't she? Which nurse do you prefer?"
"It doesn't really matter." Mai took a deep breath, preparing for the worst. "One who can teach me to feed her myself."
The reaction was exactly what she'd been preparing for. A look of scandalized shock crossed her mother's face, followed by a haughty, offended-looking half-sneer. Mai sighed. Well, at least she had known what to expect. The rest should be predictable, as well.
"And why would you want to know such a thing, Mai?"
"Because I don't want a nurse for her. I'm going to nurse her myself."
Nostril flare. Yes, that had been in the prediction too. "Mai, we don't do that. The women in our family have always had nurses for their children. Do you not realize the privilege you were born into, and the even greater privilege you married into? You do not have to feed her yourself."
"But I want to."
"Why? Why would you want to?"
Mai breathed deeply through her nose. She cleared her mind and drew on the short list of reasons that she had prepared ahead of time. This was not going to be yet another conversation where her mother talked her into a corner with no options left for her own defense. "Because," she said, keeping her voice low. "Most importantly, I want to keep her safe. Someone could put something harmful in a nurse's food, and she could pass it on to the baby without even realizing it. I always know what I eat and where it comes from. She would be safe from that, at least."
"Well, that's easily managed. We can monitor what a palace nurse eats."
"I don't care. I still don't like it." Mai took another deep breath. You're doing fine, Mai. "Secondly, I just don't see the point. My body makes milk like any other mother's, so I don't see why I should have someone else feed her when I'm perfectly capable of doing it myself. And before you say anything about the class we're from," she continued before her mother could move on. "I have never cared what 'society' thinks of me. I do what I want, they gossip, I don't care. They can say and believe whatever they want. I know what's true for me, and that's the only thing that matters. I don't care what they say about me because I want to nurse my own baby. It's not any of their business. I don't judge them on what they do with their lives, so it's not their place to judge me."
Her mother looked confused now, as if she could only barely understand what she was saying. She hid her hands in her sleeves and slowly crossed the room, her soft shoes silent on the carpeted floor. Her body was rigid, all straight lines and restrained movements as she walked. She walked around the bed to the side where Mai rested, but stopped a few feet away from the bed itself, and there she stood, unmoving and silent. The confusion disappeared from her face, to be replaced by a perfectly blank, neutral expression.
Mai realized just then that her mother really didn't understand, and her breath caught in her throat. Her mother had lived her life to fit in with society, changing herself to fit others' expectations, whereas Mai had felt smothered by the very same world. That was all the older woman knew. She couldn't conceive of rebelling against the norm, but Mai had always been a black koala-sheep.
When she was younger, her extended family ignored her as long as she kept to herself, which she did. But the truth was that they didn't want to acknowledge all the things that made her different, that wouldn't be trimmed and pruned down into pleasing shapes that would fit in among everyone else. They praised her when she did something they liked, anything that made her more like a doll and less like a person. They praised her beauty and her good manners, but never her wit or skill with knives. Those things didn't fit in with who she should have been, and they were to be squashed out. Mai couldn't handle that. Mentally, physically, and emotionally she just couldn't do it.
"Do you get it?" Mai asked, a touch of desperation entering her voice. She wanted her mother to get it. And not just so she would let Mai feed the baby. There was so much more she wanted to say, things that she hoped would be apparent through this particular request.
A very long silence hung in the air, dense and heavy enough to be felt like a weight. Her mother's face was a mask; her eyes betrayed nothing as she watched Mai and the baby for a moment.
"No," she said shortly. "I think I get you, though. Being with you these past months... we have never been alike. And yet, at the same time... we have everything in common."
Mai was temporarily speechless as she tried to figure out what that meant. Her mother sat stiffly down on the edge of the bed.
"You care deeply for your baby. So do I—I care deeply for both of them. They will always be my babies, no matter how old they get or how many children of their own they have. You would do anything for yours, as I would do anything for mine. But," she said, "we express it in different ways. We come from different generations... different worlds, even though you are my daughter. I don't understand you, and I know you don't understand me. So we fight. I do have several years' experience on you, and I think you would do well to take my advice every once in a while, though," she said, a touch of reproach in her words. Mai looked down, sheepish. "Everything I've done has been for you and your brother. But you... you were always different. What was best for me was never what was best for you, and no matter how much I try to force it..." She shook her head and said nothing for a long moment. "I don't think I will ever understand you. But I'm working on it. And I think now... after so many years, I think I'm finally starting to see."
"You... you are?"
"Yes. I was meant to be a noblewoman. You were meant to be Mai. I was meant to be a governor's wife, you were meant to be Mai. I was meant to be the Firelady's mother, and you... have always been Mai, no matter how hard I tried to make you be what I thought Mai should be." Her voice was very soft now, so quiet that Mai had to strain to hear it.
Mai's eyes prickled. She blinked furiously to make it go away, but she couldn't—she squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, but all that did was force a tear out, to roll down her cheek and to drip off her chin.
She made sure there was no more of that before she spoke again. "Mom... you do get it."
"I'm still working on it. But I think it will be easier now."
"Yeah. It will. I'll... I'll work on it, too."
Her mother smiled, then, an expression that broke up the hard lines of her face and softened her eyes. She put a hand on Mai's shoulder and squeezed. "I'll get a nurse for you. Sit tight, I'll be right back."
"You're welcome, dear."
Zuko sat on a stool and leaned back against the grimy stone wall. He could feel Ozai's malevolent eyes on him. Neither of them said a word for a long time.
"I have a daughter," Zuko said simply.
"Hmmm. Yes, I did hear about you marrying that nonbender. For your line's sake, you'd better hope your heir has fire."
"You helped arrange our marriage when we were kids," Zuko said, annoyed. Of all the people to talk about firebenders being superior... "But then, I guess I wasn't in line for the throne back then."
"You were never in line for the throne," Ozai muttered.
"Doesn't matter now, does it? I'm the Firelord, and Mai is my wife. And now we have a baby girl." And you can't do anything about it.
"And I'm sure you remember what day it is."
Ozai glanced up at the ceiling as if calling back the memory. "Ah, yes. The day I thought I was rid of you for good. I wonder if being born today will make her as weak and useless as you are."
"It's the anniversary of the first time I challenged you. And if she's what you call 'weak and useless,' I'll be proud." He stood up and faced the man in the cell. "She is never going to be afraid of me. I will never hurt her. She'll know that no matter what she does, I will always love her. Unconditionally. I know you can't even understand that, so I won't try to spell it out for you."
"Interesting. And why did you feel the need to come tell me this?"
"Because for the last seven years, I've always hated this day. And now you don't even have that power over me, because I have something better to think about. It's my daughter's birthday, and I couldn't be happier."
"Good for you." Ozai was no longer looking at him, but at the opposite wall of his tiny prison. "Go be happy somewhere else."