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: 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.
I was going to update this tomorrow, but then I started writing it and became insanely smitten with this new character, and...well, here's the update on time.
With that new mindset, Zuko found it easier to deal with the daily issues that kept popping up. The treatments provided appropriate but also relaxing distractions, and pretty soon he found himself wondering how long it would be until the egg hatched. When he mentioned it to Mai, her eyes shone and her smile was wide, so he knew that she was feeling the very same anticipation as him. It was one thing to be content with the incubation periods, but another to be able to enjoy the fruits of that labour.
If he had the gift of foresight, perhaps he would have been less excited and more … cautionary. But hindsight is always the sharpest. And certainly the least flammable.
It was sooner than expected when they got an inkling that perhaps their long moments of waiting for results were about to pay off and be concluded – about two or three weeks sooner than they had been told. There was no real indication that the day would be that day at all, for everything happened rather quickly and within the middle of a routine treatment.
Zuko had just lowered his hand, a few residual sparks rising up from the glowing hot egg beneath him, when, quite suddenly, there was a sharp sort of clicking noise. Both Mai and Zuko started, Mai jumping to her feet, not to back away, but to stand beside Zuko.
"That's … never happened before," he said slowly, his face paling. Mai bit her lip, privately agreeing and feeling her gut clench with despair. In none of their notes had there been anything about noises like that, none at all. Clearly, it meant that something was wrong, and it was probably really, really bad.
Gently, Mai touched Zuko's arm, since she could already see the growing panic in his eyes. "Calm down," she advised. He swallowed hard. "Remember, anything could be everything, but it could also mean nothing. Let's just keep going as usual and see what happens."
So they waited, unable to admit to each other that what either wanted to more than anything was to poke the egg to make sure it was fine. When Mai was finally sure that she could pick up the egg, she did so with shaking hands and somewhat jerky moves.
The moment it was in her arms, they heard that clicking noise again, only this time, with it came actual results. Slowly, the gold patterns upon the egg seemed to split, and it was then that Mai realised that of course the egg wasn't solid gold and that of course the Sun Warriors needed a method to protect it. The gold was the protective casing, one that would definitely not be needed once the egg was ready to hatch.
"Ah," Mai said, unable to keep her voice from being high-pitched. "It's, um, opening."
"What?" Zuko spluttered. "Opening? Did we break it? How is that…?"
He didn't have a chance to speculate further, for as he was, the gold encasing continued to open up and retract away, revealing a blue-tinted and smooth egg beneath – one that was now riddled with hair-thin cracks.
"What do we do, they said it would take months?" Mai yelped out, suddenly realising that she was holding a live dragon egg and it was hatching! She dug her nails into the grooves of the shell, hoping to keep her grip upon it as it seemed to almost vibrate in her hands.
"They lied!" Zuko answered back, grabbing hold of it with her. Ignoring her protests, he looped his fingers beneath the gold casing and started to prise it off, which seemed to work far better than allowing it to be pushed aside by a quaking egg. The golden shell was seemingly designed just for this, for while it showed no visible edges, it seemed to almost collapse into itself like one of Suki's fans. "Grab hold of the egg while I get rid of this!"
Mai did so, her fingers now cupping around what felt like a shockingly hot and almost rubbery egg. She felt a faint pulse of revulsion at this, but it was quickly banished when she realised that it wasn't gross but merely living. Suddenly, she felt a spark of something deep within her heart, something shocking and alien, and she realised it was protectiveness. She was protective of that ugly rubbery thing, and she wouldn't let any harm come to it.
Once the egg was free, Mai curled her arms around it and held it to her breast as usual, closing her eyes. Zuko leaned in close, eyeing her with some confusion and more than enough worry, wondering if somehow Mai wasn't quite getting that this was happening now and perhaps she shouldn't be cuddling it. He moved to place his hands upon the egg, but Mai opened one eye and said softly, "Don't. Come here, put your arms around me, remember?"
Zuko swallowed again, sanity finally returning for just long enough so that he actually did remember what she meant. Within their notes, near the end, were strict guidelines when it came to the hatching – specifically, that when the egg started to crack, both foster-parents had to be holding the egg so that once it hatched, the dragon would see them both. It was crucial that it did, because otherwise, neither would have any connection with it, which was missing the whole point in the first place.
When Zuko sat down beside her and slide his arms around hers, resting his hands on top of hers, her eye closed and she relaxed, and Zuko marvelled at how she was able to do this. With a strength he never knew she had, she held onto the egg as it wiggled and writhed in her grasp, as if wanting to do nothing better than fall onto the hard floor and become nothing but goo. Were all babies that suicidal? He hoped not.
"Zuko, calm down," Mai said suddenly. He blinked, wondering how she could have known, then realised that she could probably feel how fast his heart was racing. He took in a few deep breaths but still had some trouble, and she sighed, but didn't press it.
For five agonising minutes, nothing happened but that insane wiggling. Mai was used to keeping her outward appearance calm while inside being anything but, and yet even she was having some difficulty. Therefore, when the egg finally burst apart, it was no surprise that both Zuko and Mai shouted out their shock. Luckily for both, instead of dropping it, their grips merely tightened.
It was sort of ugly – a little slimy and glassy and definitely odd. Its skin was a very light blue – almost like a blue-shadowed white – and the dragon itself was no bigger than a small loaf of bread. It made several oddly wet-sounding coughs, shook itself (this led to a fine spray of mucus landing on them both), and then turned its serpentine head and looked up at its new parents quizzically.
Both Mai and Zuko stopped breathing at this moment. The little dragon had very bright yellow eyes, eyes that met Mai's first, then Zuko's, without so much as a flicker of hesitation. Within those eyes blazed intelligence, thoughtful consideration, and deep within the swirls of bright colour, a flicker of obvious fire. The eyes blinked slowly, then resumed staring.
"Oh," Mai whispered, enchanted. "Hello, you beautiful little girl."
Zuko gaped for a moment, then realised that she was right – blue dragons were female. Something warm snaked through his belly and spread to his fingertips and toes, and he stared at the small dragon with what was probably a silly smile. "Oh, wow."
The dragon stared at them a bit more, and Mai, who was proving to be far braver than him, shifted her hands so that one cupped the dragon, leaving the other free to reach forward to touch the dragon's head. The dragon eyed her hand almost in suspicion before leaning towards it. Mai touched her head very gently, and to both her and Zuko's delight, the dragon not only nuzzled her fingers but made a sort of trilling noise, very similar to that of a chipper canary-cat.
Zuko leaned closer, keeping his arm around Mai but reaching out like she was, to touch, too. The dragon didn't so much as flinch as he touched her, taking turns brushing her whiskery cheek against his hand and Mai's.
"I may just melt," Mai whispered.
"We should make sure Quoro has a mop for both of us, then," Zuko replied. She turned to him and gave him one of those smiles he loved, an open and honest smile with complete lack of her usual icy control. Her eyes shone brightly, almost as brightly as the dragon's, and suddenly Zuko wished that this moment would be eternal. If he spent his whole life in this stone cavern beneath the Fire Nation with his wife and their dragon, he would die a happy man.
The dragon closed one eye, then seemed to huff a little. A tiny plume of smoke snaked up from her nostrils, but there was nothing to worry about, for shortly following, she merely curled up upon their palms and shut both eyes. Instinctually, Mai brought her hand and Zuko's close to her chest to keep her warm, like she had while still within the egg. The dragon curled up closer to her chest and huffed a smokeless huff, and Mai looked up at Zuko with an expression that she only wore when Tom-Tom fell asleep in her lap: pure and undiluted love. She was smitten.
"So I guess we don't need this chamber anymore."
Both Mai and Zuko jumped in shock and turned towards the voice to find none other than Quoro standing there, looking as unruffled as he always did. The dragon opened one eye before closing it, clearly assessing that there was no danger.
"How-when-how?" Zuko stammered.
Quoro walked towards them, stopping a respectful distance away and bowing, despite the fact that his eyes were wide and on the dragon in Mai's arms and the leftover remnants of the shell decorating her lap and the floor. "You are late for your meetings," he explained calmly. "I figured that you had become distracted in some way or another."
"She's early," Mai explained softly. "We weren't prepared."
"Ah, but here she is," Quoro replied. "So now we have a problem, don't we? The secret will come out. The other nations will soon learn you have her in your fold."
Zuko felt all of the blood leave his face. Quoro was right – they hadn't had enough time to explain what was happening beneath their feet for these few weeks, and now they didn't have a chance for preparation. It would look extremely bad for them, as if they had something to hide.
But Mai surprised them. "If we had mentioned it, they would think we were lying, anyway," she said calmly. "It wasn't as if we could show them the egg – it was too fragile, casing and all. Now that she's hatched, we can come clean and no one gets hurt. You're both way too wrapped up in semantics. Do you really think that anyone who sees her will only think about politics? Seriously?"
The flatness in her voice seemed to make even Quoro embarrassed, which was something rare in itself. "Ah, well," he replied, scratching his cheek, "there is that."
Mai smiled her sly smile. "If anything, we should be placing bets as to who would react in what way. I bet you that Aang will cry."
Zuko gave her a stern look. "Cry? Aang isn't much of a crybaby."
Mai raised an eyebrow, then gestured to the dragon in her arms. "Look closely at her for one whole minute and tell me you don't feel misty-eyed."
Zuko started to protest, but then shut up. Instead, he blushed – she was right. She was actually right at that precise moment…
He looked away and cleared his throat, unable to miss her smirking.
"In any case," Quoro broke in mildly, pretending not to notice that his Firelord was looking a little watery-eyed. "When will you break the news?"
Mai nodded slowly. "The Sun Warriors told us that once the dragon hatches, we have to keep it – her – with us for the first month, no matter what. She has to stay with both of us in the same room…" She blinked, then went a little pink. "Er, well, with some exclusions, of course."
"But how are we going to keep a baby dragon with us at all times?" Zuko demanded. "She's small, but she's not exactly easy to hide, and she's only going to get bigger!"
As if hearing his tone, the dragon in question opened one eye and seemed to be giving him what looked suspiciously like stink-eye.
"Zuko," Mai scowled at him, "we will just have to deal with it. This is way more important that what a handful of moronic stuffy politicians think."
"Well," Quoro broke in mildly, "I wouldn't go so far as to say that, but certainly in comparison, your new charge ranks much higher, yes."
Mai had to struggle to keep a scowl from her face when she met Quoro's gaze. "Sounds to me like you have an idea as to how to do this properly, then?"
Quoro sighed. "Why do you always insist on cornering me that way?"
"Because I can," she replied. She looked back to Zuko, who was looking at the dragon closely. "Here's an idea: We just show up and if they ask, we answer."
Zuko raised his eyebrow, and predictably, Quoro said, "That's not exactly diplomatic."
But Zuko, however, was smiling at Mai, who was grinning back. "Exactly," he agreed. "Which is why we do it Mai's way. Our reign is based on breaking the rules. Mai, you're amazing."
She looked pleased. "You sound surprised. You should be ashamed of that."
"Er," Quoro sighed. "As your archivist, I have to let you know, I think it's a bad idea."
"And as your Firelord I acknowledge that and dismiss it," Zuko replied cheerfully. He was excited – that was just the fact of the matter. He didn't like to admit it too much, but he loved to stir up justified trouble in the war room, and this would definitely be one of those justified moments.
"However," Mai broke in, "there are a few problems. She's pretty laid-back right now, but once she gets a second-wind, she's going to be unbearably hungry. We need food, and we need to give her a name. What do you suggest?"
"Well, the Sun Warriors said that feeding her is pretty easy … the first few months all they really eat are fire-flakes and warm water," Zuko replied. "And by the time she's on to other food, well, she'll be back with the Sun Warriors, won't she?"
Mai opened her mouth in shock, feeling something cold bite into her. She was stricken, because in this whole moment, she had forgotten that the dragon was permanent; she was just a loaner, a symbol, and nothing more. She would have to go back.
Mai was surprised by how much that hurt her.
Zuko had suddenly realised what he had said at that precise moment, and he, too, looked upset. "Oh," he murmured, and they looked at each other. "Oh…"
Mai's eyes burned, as if suddenly she was daring him to say something, anything, just so that she could fight him. "We still have to name her," she said softly, her voice low. No one but Zuko knew precisely what that tone meant, and even though it sounded merely conversational, he knew that it really meant that she was upset – and hating it.
But now was not the time to discuss that. That day was weeks away, at least. Now was still here.
He smiled at her, and her eyes narrowed – she knew it was his fake smile. "I know just the name for her." He leaned in close and whispered it into her ear, and without control she burst into a short laugh. "That's perfect," she agreed.
"May I know?" Quoro wondered lightly.
"Of course," Zuko replied. "With everyone else." He looked at his wife, who was leaning over the dragon in her arms and whispering something to her, her eyes closed and her smile bright. The dragon seemed to be listening with only one eye open, which sent both pain and pleasure deep into his heart.
That comes later. Now … now is the best part.