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: After this chapter, please expect some minor delays in posting. For example, there will be no update on Wednesday, since I will be away from the computer that day. I plan on using my spare time at work to finish and edit the remainder of this story, but considering how hectic my health has been as of late, please be patient with me and remember this when you see some delays =3.
True to her words, the egg was dropped off about forty minutes after Fa Laom left. It was brought by two female Sun Warriors who held it in wrapped between them in what looked like a black and dirty blanket; when Mai peered closer, she saw that it was merely an insulated blanket covered in ash. A faint sheen of gold peeked out from the cloth, intricate and upraised patterns dancing along the surface, and she found that she couldn't take her eyes away from it.
Very gently, the two Warriors placed the wrapped egg into the concave crevice. Mai and Zuko hovered close nearby, Zuko's hand suddenly grabbing onto Mai's. His hand felt hot and clammy, and she knew by this alone that he was nervous – his face showed nothing, all except for slightly narrowed eyes. Once the egg was uncovered and still, the Warriors bowed and exited the room, leaving the two staring at what was before them.
"Zuko," Mai finally said. "Get started."
With a jolt, as if in a trance, he jerked away from her and stumbled over to the furnace. With a shaky flick of his fingers, he lit the fresh wood within, and the pleasant sound of dancing flames filled the room. After a few moments, Mai felt a gust of warm air envelope her from the vents, and she sighed deeply, closing her eyes. She had to admit that she had been a little cold before. Sitting on the lip of the makeshift cradle, Mai watched as Zuko returned and stood in front, one hand out, his face pulled in confusion and worry.
"Only for a few moments, Zuko," she reminded him gently. "And then once it cools, I hold it for a while. Remember? And then we don't have to worry about it again for another six hours."
"Yeah, I know," he admitted, his voice very soft. His eyes were on the golden egg. "It's just … once I start … we can't go back, you know? That's it. We're in it for the long haul."
She smiled, and his eyes met hers finally. "And isn't that really cool?"
He stared at her for a moment, before his face broke into a relieved smile, the one she loved so much. Without another protest, he held his hand out and a steady stream of fire burst forward. Mai watched with a small smile, feeling the added heat on her face and arms, mentally counting in her head. When it seemed like enough, she held her hand up and Zuko stopped. The egg seemed to glow from the fire, a brighter, almost white-yellowish colour that reminded her of the softest kind of gold. Entranced, Mai reached out to touch it, but Zuko yelped and grabbed her hand back.
"Don't!" he cried, and she looked up, surprised. "It's hot, remember?"
She stared at him. The colour of the egg didn't remind her just of soft gold, she realised. It was also strikingly similar to the colour of his eyes. "Relax," she said softly, "I just need to check if I can hold it yet."
She touched a finger very lightly to the surface of the egg and found that the glow was misleading; the surface was hot, yes, but not untouchably so. She reached down and scooped the egg up, hugging it close, like she would hold Tom-Tom when he was barely a week old. The egg nestled against her breast and seemed to heat her from within, like the best of hot water bottles, and she shut her eyes and sighed.
Zuko shifted a little, then sat down beside her, looking worried. He placed a hand on her shoulder, but she kept quiet. For some reason, to her, it seemed important to keep quiet. Zuko followed her lead and rested his head on her other shoulder as they waited, the sound of leaping flames from the furnace the only sound.
It was a kind of peace that reminded Mai of lazy afternoons, when she and him had no duties at the moment and could spend the precious few hours doing their own thing undisturbed, be it reading or making love or just sitting together, sometimes chatting, sometimes not. It was the kind of peace that seemed to permeate the very air, curling around them like a little bubble and giving them their own kind of private universe.
Thus when she felt that the surface had finally matched her body temperature, she felt a slight pang of disappointment. She opened her eyes and leaned to the side, reaching for the heat-blanket. Zuko stirred, and she suspected that he had been dozing a bit. Carefully, she wrapped the heavy egg in the blanket before placing it back in the little niche.
For a moment, they sat together, their gaze fixed on the swaddled egg, before Mai said, "Shall we get some lunch?" When Zuko nodded, they got up together and left the room, leaving the furnace lit.
Despite Zuko's initial nervousness, it actually was a pretty simple job to do. Both found themselves looking forward to their visit to the little chamber, relishing in the moment of long, quiet peace before returning to the normal world.
In between sessions, both Zuko and Mai were sat down and taught by both Ham Gao and Fa Laom the basics of baby dragon care. The way both of them spoke of it made it seem extremely difficult and rather taxing, but both of them found it hard to believe; the egg itself was so peaceful and soothing, and thus it was immensely hard to accept that something so innocuous could break apart and become something so volatile. The way Ham Gao described it, a baby dragon was like a small, scaled and extremely bad-tempered firebender.
In between lessons and sessions, Zuko wrote to the archivist Quoro and requested that he look for a chamber similar to the one within the ruins. He suggested that if all failed, Quoro could bring Toph along as an extra set of 'eyes' in case the chamber was long-hidden due to abandonment. Mai found the idea amusing, especially since it was widely known that Toph loved to rattle the ever-calm temperament of their archivist in any way she could, so long as she got a reaction.
"I look forward to the letters that that mission will bring," she admitted gleefully.
Zuko didn't. He dreaded what the state of the capitol would be like when they returned. The only times his mind wasn't on the cloud looming in the distance above his country was when he and Mai were curled together in the incubating room, lost in thought and sensation with the egg wrapped in Mai's arms.
Soon, the week was over. When they were told, both were oddly confused – where had the time gone, and why had it gone so quickly? It really didn't seem as if a week had passed.
The morning they were due to return back to the capitol, Zuko was perched at the small desk, his eyes fixed and roving over the notes he had made while being taught the basic instructions on how to care for the dragon once it hatched. Every so often, when he felt the weight of what it was he was actually doing hit him, he felt needles of fear prick his insides, followed inexplicably by irrational excitement. It was nauseating, to say the least.
It was only when he felt Mai's hands in his hair that he was able to think of anything else other than his conflicting emotions. He tore his eyes away and looked up, and she leaned over him, her eyes still a little sleepy but full of excitement. "Admit it, my silly prince," she said softly. "Admit that this is a wonderful thing."
He sighed, closing his eyes a little, feeling her tilt his head back just a bit and brush her lips over his nose. "Yeah," he said, "it's good. But it's scary."
"All good things can be scary, and all scary things can be good." Her voice was so soft, and he found himself relaxing from the timbre of them, the way they rolled off her tongue so easily and comfortably. "This will definitely be one of those things. And you won't be alone."
His eyes opened, and he saw her still there, her face still upside-down, and his heart seemed to swell even larger with love for her, love that was already so immense, it seemed. "I won't?" he wondered.
She smiled. "Never. Not so long as I can help it."
"Promise?" He heard a note of longing there, and he yearned to call it back, but instead of shaking his head and pulling away, he stayed still. It seemed important to hear what she had to say.
"I promise," she said. "I promised you when I gave you that first kiss. I have yet to break it."
Now he pulled away, but only so that he could reach up and cup her face into his hands. Pulling her close, he kissed her, and she returned the gesture with love that he felt.
The egg was wrapped in a thermal blanket, one much heavier and more layered than the one previously used. It was then placed gently in a thick wooden box, to keep whatever heat was left within. If their trip was to last longer than planned, they would have to – no exceptions – land the balloon and give it more warmth. Mai took the box and held it close to her, feeling its familiar heaviness against her breast. She doubted it would come to that, but even if it did, how was it a big deal? One would think that, by the way Fa Laom said it, it was a death sentence and not a mere precaution.
Zuko spent most of the farewell fussing; he continuously went over the instructions given, kept asking the same questions over and over, and at one point begged to be shown 'just one more time, everything from the top'. It was at this point that the Chief stepped in and said, very sternly, "Have you not listened for the week you've been here, Firelord? Go home!"
The moment the couple turned to go, the Sun Warriors dispersed and seemed to vanish in seconds, going from a vast crowd to merely scents in the air. Mai wondered how they did that and, more importantly, if she could teach herself to do it.
"I hate it when they do that," Zuko grumbled. She sighed and looked up at him, catching his eyes, then rolling her own. He went pink and scratched his cheek, and she said, "You need to relax. Let's just go home."
"I'll relax when the thing is hatched and grown up," was his grumpy response, one that she decided to ignore.
The flight back was quiet. Although Zuko fussed a bit and sometimes ignored the height of the balloon while fussing, it didn't lead to anything drastic. When the capitol finally came into view, it was a relief for both of them – it had been a long week and a half.
"There's no pillar of smoke," Mai said, breaking the silence. "That's always good news."
Zuko scowled at her, although she could tell that he was relieved by this, too. He had sent a hawk a few days beforehand, when they had been notified of the last day of their visit, and thus when the balloon touched down, he was relieved to see Quoro's tall and somewhat angular figure standing there, holding his pallet one hand and a brush in the other. His face was carefully blank, but even Mai could see the dark circles formed beneath his carefully guarded eyes.
As Zuko climbed out of the balloon, he asked, a trace fearfully, "Where's Toph?"
Quoro raised a brow, and answered exactly as was expected. "Welcome back, Firelord Zuko and Firelady Mai. We have been looking forward to your return and are relieved to see you are alive and well." He sketched a bow, then looked them both over. His eyes travelled over the box in Mai's arms, but he didn't comment. "You were away longer than expected," he went on, his voice no longer drenched in formality. "There are stacks of paperwork waiting eagerly for your perusal."
"Yes," Zuko answered, waving a hand, "and Toph?"
"Shall I alert the other counsellors who await your audience of the proper time to expect your arrival in the chambers?"
Mai hid her smile behind her sleeve. She loved it when Quoro pulled this, especially when he knew that it drove Zuko crazy. It was a tactic he used when he knew that Zuko needed to expel whatever tense emotions he kept buried. Say what you will about archivists, she thought wryly, but they really do know their lords.
"You can tell them to go home," Zuko answered tersely, pushing the pallet back towards the archivist, one he had held out for him. "Tell me where Toph is!"
"I trust you got my missives?" Quoro answered idly, holding the pallet out and the brush poised.
"Yes; all of them."
"And thus you know what I had to go through while you were gone?"
"Yes, yes, I read them all and even through their lines, archivist," was the annoyed reply. "Can you please tell me where Toph is now so that I can speak to her?"
"Would you like to hear about the progress made in terms of your request?"
Zuko took a sharp breath, something Mai knew as the precursor for an explosion, so she stepped in. "You mean about the chamber we asked you to look for?" she asked hastily.
"Yes, Firelady," Quoro agreed, pulling his pallet and brush to him and deciding that Mai was a better candidate for rational discussion. "There was one found in the outer buildings, close to the Catacombs but not within the parameters. It was buried deep, and horribly filthy. It was cleaned with much success, and is ready for you at your nearest convenience."
Again his eyes trailed over the box, and Mai could tell that he was dying to ask what the chamber was for and what was in the box, but she also knew that he was, above all, a professional, and would never step those bounds unless invited to. Mai smiled at him faintly; she trusted him with many things, but she wasn't quite ready to trust him with personal matters yet. She knew she would, however, have to tell him about the egg eventually – especially when it hatched.
"And Toph?" Zuko grated out again, this time sounding slightly calmer.
"Lady Toph resides in the royal guest apartments," Quoro finally admitted. "She is, apparently, very bored, now that she has defaced all of the statues within the Palace."
Mai's eyes happened to sweep over one of the statues at that precise moment, her eyes lingering over the defaced part that forced her to squeak and laugh at the same time. Zuko followed her gaze and went bright red. "When you said 'lewd representations', you didn't mention how graphic they were!"
"Some things are better left to be seen, rather than described," was his reply, to which Zuko clutched at his hair.
Ah, there's that sign again, Mai held her hand up and placed it on Zuko's chest, balancing the box as she did so. "We can ask Haru to fix them later," she offered.
"If he's not too embarrassed."
"Actually," Quoro said idly, looking over at the statue in question, "they look rather happy, don't you think? Maybe it was an improvement. If it didn't offend anyone, I would usually say keep them."
That seemed to break through Zuko's haze of panic-induced rage. To the relief of both Mai and Quoro, he managed a small smile and his shoulders came down. "Well, either way, I think Haru would be able to help us out on this one if Toph decides not to. Is it safe to assume that the Duke is still here, too?"
"The Duke never left," Quoro said. "Lady Toph won't let him, in case she needs to write more letters on her behalf."
Mai raised a brow and looked over at Zuko. "Why don't we handle the chamber first, then the regime change? It's about time for a treatment, anyway." She tapped the box gently, and he nodded.