Characters: Mai and Zuko, assorted ensemble and an OC.
Pairing: Mai/Zuko, some hints of Toph/The Duke, Aang/Katara and Suki/Sokka
Warnings: Takes place after my first bigbang fic, At the Edge of Dusk, but you don't have to read it to enjoy this one. It occurs roughly two years post-series and does contain heavy spoilers for the entire series.
Special Note: quorothorn? You may want to read the beginning of this chapter. =D
When Mai and Zuko were led into their temporary quarters, located close to the looming staircase, a messenger hawk with the Royal Insignia was waiting for them on the windowsill, looking bored. Zuko walked over with a sinking feeling in his gut, untying not one, but three, minute scrolls from the hawk's leg. One by one he unrolled them and read them, his eyebrow rising into his bangs higher and higher with each sentence.
"Firelord, Miss Bei Fong attacked the ministers again. They deserved it, but it was rather unnecessary."
"Firelord, Miss Bei Fong tried to bend my inkstones again. As a result, here is my bill for new robes."
"Firelord, Miss Bei Fong has changed the shapes of your dragon statues. May I recommend a correction when you return? The lewd representations offend the ministers."
Mai was laughing so hard she was crying by the end of the third scroll.
"Well, at least Quoro isn't losing his sense of humour, in any case," Zuko sighed, scratching at his hair in dismay. He leaned against the windowsill, shutting his eyes.
Mai wiped her eyes and looked around their temporary home, her eyes taking in the muted oranges and yellows and wrinkling her nose a little. They had been told that for the duration of their stay that this would be where they would live. Their little suite was located in one of the large stone buildings back the looming staircase, thus it was sort of small and squashed-looking. The place itself was rather modestly outfitted, with two windows with modest shutters that kept out the hottest air. The furniture looked like something out of an antique stall, with a strange-looking bed and mismatched nightstand. Mai sat down on the bed and bounced a bit, then raised an eyebrow at shot a smirk to Zuko.
Zuko had to laugh a bit at this. "Will it do for now?"
"It beats sleeping on stone with a rock digging into my back," she agreed, stopping her bouncing and instead lying down on her back, shutting her eyes. "Dragons, huh? You were right."
"Baby dragons," Zuko answered, dropping the letters on one of the desks and joining her at her side with a grunt. "What do I know about baby dragons? I don't even know anything about adult dragons!" Mai smiled at him. He blinked, surprised at this. "Why are you smiling at my panic?"
"I'm not smiling at your panic," she corrected gently. "I just think you're so sweet. You really want this to work."
"It has to work," Zuko answered sharply. "If it doesn't, then the Sun Warriors will go back into hiding, and we'll lose them as allies."
"And if we succeed, the dragons may be back on the rise."
"Yeah, about that," Zuko crossed his arms, his eyes now fixed on the ceiling. "Why only one egg? How do they expect the population to return with so few dragons?"
"One egg that we know of," Mai corrected. "It doesn't mean that there is only one egg, Zuko. These people have been hiding for decades. I wouldn't expect them to trust us right away, even now."
"That makes me ... sad," he admitted. "I would want them to trust us."
"Well, then let's not screw this up." She moved in close and hugged him around his waist. "Let's do our best. I'm sure it'll be enough."
Zuko wrapped his arm around her, kissing the top of her head. "Yeah, I hope you're right."
"I am, so trust in me."
He smiled. "I do. I really do."
"Good," she murmured. "Now start trusting in yourself."
He kissed her again, before his eyes went back to the ceiling. His mind was miles away, in the sky, watching in his mind's eye the graceful forms of the two dragons from his past.
The rest of the day was spent in the suite. They spent most of their time getting familiar with their new surroundings, as well as being treated to various meals and foods that were customary to partake in. The food was bland compared to what they were used to, but still far more flavourful that the usual fare served in the Earth Kingdom – something they both remembered quite well. For the time being, all they could do, really, was to wait for the right time in which the Sun Warriors needed them. Neither felt right pressing the issue, especially since it wasn't really clear as to whether they were taking care of the egg or the baby dragon (or both).
"I think it's both," Mai admitted that night, as she brushed her hair slowly. Zuko sat on the bed, watching her, his chin cupped in his hands. She always wondered why he did that, especially since she brushed her hair every night. It wasn't something new. "I think they want us to both hatch it and then raise it."
"Why would they want that?" Zuko wondered, sounding tired. "Like we know anything about hatching dragons."
"Well, think about it for a moment," she said, setting her brush down. "Most animals instantly get attached to their mothers once they're born and lock eyes with them, right?"
"I guess so."
"So, if we're supposed to raise the dragon, we would have to be there at day one. Otherwise, it probably won't work."
Zuko blinked slowly. "So the dragon has to get attached to us?"
She nodded. "I think that's the plan."
"Well, and then what?" One of Zuko's hands dropped as he spoke. "Watch as it breathes fire everywhere?"
She sighed. "Did you ever pay attention to your studies?"
He smirked. "I was too busy trying to find ways to get you to pay attention to me than to care about that."
"Oh, bleck," she answered, although inwardly she was pleased. "Some dragons don't even breathe fire, I think. At least, that's what legends said."
"But these dragons are probably descendants of the first firebenders. Of course they breathe fire."
Mai's eyes widened. Suddenly all she could think about was how flammable the palace was and how priceless so many of those flammable things were. "That could be a problem."
Zuko's eyes went unfocussed. "Firebenders. Think about all of the things they could teach us."
"You," Mai corrected automatically.
Mai opened her mouth to tease him, but her mind suddenly jumped back to when they had done the Dancing Dragon together, and how she had suddenly felt warm, almost hot. But she shook it off in the end. It had probably been nothing.
"Hey, do you think that's how Uncle knew Breath of Fire? From the dragons?" he was saying now. "He never told me where he learned it; he just taught me how to do it."
"Mm. I have to thank him for that."
He didn't seem to hear her coy comment, which disappointed her a little. His mind was still in the skies, apparently. "If that's something the dragons taught him, do you think Sozin and Roku knew it, too? I doubt any of the other Dragons knew it."
Mai noted the tone of voice that he used when saying 'Dragons'. This time, it meant the soldiers who had hunted down and killed dragons for military prestige, and not for lessons and knowledge, in order to get the title of Dragon. She found it unlikely that any of those people would have bothered trying to communicate with the dragons they sought to kill, let alone found time for any firebending tips.
"Maybe that's how Roku got to be so good at firebending..."
Mai smiled to herself and picked up her brush again. As she listened to her husband stew over everything, she had to admit that she was, for the most part, excited about what was to come. Something like this didn't happen every day, and with a dragon around, well, there would be little time for things to get boring.
And, well ... her eyes fell on Zuko again, and her smile widened. He had leaned over so much that he was now lying on his side, his hands dangling over the side as he wondered things aloud. It was nice to see him without the heavy burdens of palace life, so full of joy and excitement again. It was long overdue.
She set the brush down again and got up. Zuko looked up and blinked, his words trailing off as he watched her come over and kneel in front of him on the floor, her smile wide. She looked into his eyes, and he looked back at her, still on his side. Unable to resist, she reached out and slid her fingers through his hair slowly.
"This is going to be good," she said. "This is going to be really good. For you and me, for the Fire Nation, for the Sun Warriors … For everyone. And I'm so glad I get to see it all at your side."
He smiled slowly, his eyes sparking like they always did when he was touched. She leaned forward and tilted her head to kiss him, and he returned it.
In the light of the new day, there was more to discuss before they went out to meet the Chief, who said he would be waiting for them shortly after dawn. "How to we explain to Toph and the others that we won't be coming back for at least a few weeks?"
Mai shrugged one shoulder. It was a good question, and she really wished he hadn't asked it, because she didn't have an answer. "You're the Firelord," was the only one she had, and it made said Firelord wrinkle his nose.
"I can't be a tyrant," he sniffed.
"Being away for a few weeks on a diplomatic mission is hardly tyranny."
Zuko opened his mouth, then closed it, then scratched his head. "I know that, but I still have trouble figuring it all out."
"Well," Mai sighed, her eyes fixed on the windowsill. "You have a moment to hold off. You have another letter."
Zuko groaned and got to his feet, practically dragging himself over to where the Imperial hawk stood calmly, holding its leg out. Zuko took the letter and patted it, and it took off almost instantly.
"Another letter from your archivist?"
He opened it and shook his head, but he didn't look happy. In fact, he looked worse. He read it aloud:
"Fusslord, don't listen to a damned thing your prissypants scribbler says. I'm doing what I can to keep people from being assholes. Isn't that enough? From Toph Bei Fong, transcribed by the Duke."
Mai was silent for a moment, letting it sink it. Zuko sighed and dropped the letter on the pile of Quoro's, then sat down, looking like he was seconds away from running back to the Palace to make things all better again.
Until she said, "See? All under control."
His laugh was the sound she was waiting for, and it was a reward.
Despite Zuko's initial worries about the Palace, he was soon to be easily distracted that afternoon once they joined the Sun Warriors and began their training.
They were led into a chamber similar to the one they had been in when they did the Dragon Dance. It was circular, dimly lit, and sparsely furnished. There were two doorways: one that they had walked through, and another – about five times larger – that was situated right across. Within the middle of the room sat a small, oval-shaped pit, almost like a bowl that was carved into the floor and smoothed into something flawless. When Zuko peered into it, he saw that it was empty. However, he had a feeling that it wouldn't be for long.
They were brought into the room not by Ham Gao or the Chief, but by a Sun Warrior woman who was named Fa Laom. She was heavy-set, both in muscle and in weight, and she was somewhat intimidating at first. However, when she began to smile and speak, Mai and Zuko instantly found themselves relaxing around her, especially when it became clear that she knew what she was talking about.
"This is the nursery," Fa Laom said, her deep voice echoing slightly within the chamber. "For now, the egg is with its mother, who breathes fire upon it for an entire year, four times daily. Once the year has passed, the egg is brought here and incubated for one week."
"How do you keep the chamber warm?" Mai wondered.
Fa Laom smiled and walked over to the side, where there was a long rectangle shape imbedded into the wall. She ran her hand over it slowly, and as she moved her palm downwards, the shape stretched open, revealing a black chamber. The strong scent of ashes followed. "This heading chamber has vents that lead throughout the whole room. Through them, the air wafts through and keeps the room warm. It doesn't need to be as warm as the fire of its mother, but the residual warmth helps." She turned and looked over her shoulder, smiling a red-painted smile. "And that's where you both come in."
"Oh?" Mai's voice was mild, but she looked interested all the same.
"Firelord, you're a firebender. You'll be the key in keeping the egg warm for this next week." Fa Laom turned back to them and stood before the bowl in the ground as she spoke. "By using your bending, the egg will get used to knowing you. By the end of the first week, it will know you, and you'll be able to leave with the egg."
"It's not going to hatch here?" Zuko blurted out.
"Did the Chief not tell you that?"
Both Firelord and Lady shook their heads slowly. Fa Laom uttered a gusty laugh, even though she probably knew she was quite alone in her amusement. "Firelord, Firelady - the egg is going home with you to hatch as well as to raise. The moment the egg breaks and the membrane is cleared away, the dragon imprints on the one it meets its gaze with first."
"Wait a second," Zuko said, his voice strained and his hands in his hair, "we're raising the dragon ... forever?"
Mai's eyes widened, her cheeks going pink. She felt a wave of absolute delight course through her, but she kept silent.
Fa Laom, however, looked at her, and her smile widened, as if knowing of her delight. "That, Firelord, is entirely up to you and the Chief," was all she said. "However, now all you need to focus on is the next week."
Zuko looked pale, but he nodded. "So how do I ... you know ... firebend on the egg?"
Fa Laom sat down on the lip of the bowl in the ground, holding a hand palm-down towards the centre. With a flick of her wrist, a burst of flame erupted from her hand and streamed out for only a few seconds, then stopped. "Only as long as that, so that it's long enough to encase the egg in your fire all around for a few moments. It's very easy, very efficient, and not anything to worry about. You do it four times daily, every six hours."
"I worry," Mai broke in, looking annoyed. "What am I supposed to do? I'm not a bender."
Fa Laom lowered her hands and smiled warmly. "I know that, Firelady, and I haven't gotten to that yet. The Firelord's job is rather simple compared to yours."
Zuko scowled, but Mai leaned forward, her eyes alight with interest. "Do tell," she said softly.
"When the egg cools, you are the one who keeps the heat within it. Eggs only respond well to a female touch." Zuko tilted his head to one side, and Fa Laom laughed. "It's true. Eggs nursed by men will either not hatch or hatch with spoiled yolk and nothing else. We have no knowledge of why this happens - only that it does."
Mai smiled, almost catlike. "Wonderful."
"Once the egg has cooled enough to hold in your arms, that is exactly what you do – hold the egg to you closely and completely covered. Firelord, you can't help her," this was added with a slightly stern look to Zuko, whose scowl darkened. "She must do this herself, so that the dragon knows you both personally and intimately. She does this until the egg is the same temperature as her body, in which then she covers it once more with the heat-blanket until the next time."
Mai looked at Zuko, who was already looking at her. "This sounds wonderful," she admitted, and Zuko, seeing her obvious excitement, had to admit that she was right – there really was something exciting about it all.
"Wait a second," Zuko held up a hand. "We're only doing this for a week, right?"
"No, you do this until the egg has hatched. We will only be monitoring you for the week."
"I'm pretty sure the Palace doesn't have a chamber like this," he answered, his words sounding gusty as he sighed at the same time. "How do we keep doing this without it? How long do we do this for? Are you sure we should be doing this at all?"
"Zuko." Mai's voice was soft, but her eyes were stern. He knew why; he had to keep his confidence up, at least in front of the Sun Warriors, lest they think him unworthy of the task and thus unworthy of their loyalty.
"Firelord," Fa Laom's voice was bright, as was her smile. "Your ancestors both had dragons. Do you really think they just 'found' them? Without a doubt, there is a chamber like this within your palace. You just need to look harder."
Zuko honestly doubted it, but he said nothing to that effect. Mai tactfully decided to move subjects. "When should we start?"
"As soon as you can. The egg has already had its morning treatment. You can begin with the day's second one before noon. Be warned, though - once you start, you cannot cease unless you have changed your minds."
It was an apt warning, but Mai doubted that either of them would change their minds. "And how long does it take for an egg to hatch?"
"A month, maybe two. It varies by sex and by temperament of the dragon." Fa Laom placed her hands on her hips. "If you have any questions, I am always within earshot of a shout. Never hesitate to yell. Expect the egg within the hour."
It was a final word. With similar nods, both Mai and Zuko took their places, and Fa Laom left the room without another word, exiting through the large set of doors. There was a moment of silence before the two looked at each other, Zuko wary and Mai glowing with her excitement. Zuko could see the way her eyes shone, and it for some reason exasperated him. "Am I the only one in this room that understands the gravity of the situation? It's almost like you view it as a game."
Mai grinned. "It is a game. If I learned one thing from Ty Lee, it's that everything is and can be a game."
Zuko couldn't find any way to respond to that.