Within the "Two Birds" continuity, bridging the gap to spawn fic. This actually started it, because I wanted some kind of conflict between Mai and Ursa, but I also love Mai/Zuko and court stuff, so...
At this point, Mai was completely unsurprised to be informed that Toph had arrived in the middle of the night, and could be found playing in the rock garden. Mai had, at first, had objections to Toph doing any sort of bending on palace grounds, but had soon realized two things: Toph usually left everything looking much nicer than anything the groundskeepers would ever be capable of doing, and there was nothing Mai could do about it anyway.
"I didn't know you were coming," Mai said bluntly. Toph would never take the hint, but Mai couldn't help trying.
"It was kind of an impulse thing." It always was.
"What have you been doing since last time?"
Toph shook her head. "Like you don't already know?" She removed the scroll from her belt. "Making myself useful, as always."
Unpredictable though she was, Toph was the best (and, truthfully, only) messenger Ursa could use. Though Ursa practically wrote in code, her true meaning usually buried in a few layers of apparent banality, she was very conscious of her banishment and keeping as low a profile as she was able. Direct correspondence through interceptable means was simply not her style.
A few sentences in, Mai realized it had been a mistake to begin reading this in anyone else's company, particularly Toph's. She might have been able to hide the emotions from almost anyone else, but Toph...
"That bad huh?" she grinned.
"You knew?" Mai asked coldly.
"Ursa explained the general idea. She also said she'd drop it if there was a good reason... so is there a good reason that you're not knocked up yet?"
Mai tried to keep her breathing even. "It really isn't much of your business. Or Ursa's for that matter."
"Yeah... you know that's not really true. If it concerns Zuko, it concerns Ursa. And if it really concerns Ursa, it becomes my business, too." Toph seemed to consider her a moment. "Honestly Mai, you know I'd be the last person in the world telling you to do something just because your parents told you to..."
"So what are you doing here?" Mai turned to leave.
"Look, Ursa's been worried, this is something that you all need to talk about, and you're clearly not going to actually go and talk to her about it. So I'm here." At least Toph didn't sound happy about it. "Ursa likes and respects you, Mai, and she does care what you think, as long as... well... you think about it." Mai would bet those were Ursa's words.
"Toph, stay out of it."
She shrugged. "Sorry. I was told I couldn't go back without a response from you."
Mai was furiously silent.
"Okay then," Toph took her escape. "I'll be around if you need to find me."
Mai penned her response in a cold fury; it was the closest she would be getting to calm and rational. She knew that Ursa didn't lack for nerve; even half a world away, she would frequently write to tell Mai and Zuko how to run their country. But that was expected, even appreciated most of the time. Telling Mai how to run her life, however... that was something else. Mai knew her place in the palace, knew how to do her job, how to be helpful to Zuko. She couldn't imagine giving that up right now just to appease her mother-in-law, and that Ursa would even dare to ask that of her was infuriating.
The added implication that some woman across the ocean knew Mai's own court and country and their expectations of her better than Mai did hurt more than she could have anticipated, but really, it was the implication that she was failing Zuko that hurt worst. They were only subtly implied, and it was entirely possible Mai was exaggerating them, but that didn't make her feel any better. She hated how much this woman's disappointment registered with her. What was worse was that she couldn't shake the suspicion that Ursa might know she had that power over Mai, and certainly wouldn't hesitate to use it.
Mai, however, refused to be anyone's puppet.
Toph's hesitation to give her Ursa's response should have been the first clue, Mai reflected.
"Are you okay?" Toph was studying her carefully.
Mai wanted to run away, but couldn't trust herself to move just now.
"It's not like Sokka or Suki /knew/... I mean, come on, since when have those two ever really thought out the consequences, especially for other people?"
It was probably a good thing to have Toph around. It forced Mai to control herself better than she might have otherwise.
"I mean, they haven't really told anyone, at least. Katara's the only one that even knew Suki was pregnant. Who knew Katara could keep a secret like that, right?"
At least Toph seemed to understand that this was bad news for Mai. She was a little thankful that Suki had had the good sense to have a daughter instead of a son, but that would only make things slightly better. There would be no more dodging the issue once the court saw Suki with her daughter, and Mai... alone. As soon as Suki brought the girl to the palace, it was over. And knowing Sokka and Suki, she couldn't even expect any warning.
"I'm not ready," Mai confessed softly.
Toph made a face. "Now you know that's not true. Ursa would never even bring this up unless she knew you were ready."
Mai laughed coldly. "You believe that."
"She's just trying to help," Toph retaliated. "She knows us all, and she's just trying to make everyone happy, even those of you too stubborn to get out of your own way."
"Do you really think she wouldn't sacrifice the happiness of one person for the greater good?" Mai's voice was more bitter than she'd intended, but at least Toph would get the point.
"You're not one to talk about sacrificing happiness, Mai," Toph snapped. "I'm not either, come to that, but Ursa knows. And she knows what she's doing here." Toph was more fierce than Mai could remember having seen her before.
"That's not what I meant. I know what Ursa did..." Mai frowned. "But what I do with my life shouldn't be up to her."
"It isn't," Toph replied immediately. "You know she can't make you do anything. She's just going to tell you what you should do. It's up to you to listen or not."
Mai was silent a moment. "I'm not ready," she repeated finally.
"Fine," Toph shrugged. She didn't sound surprised.
"Did Ursa tell you I would say that?" Mai asked. It was a pointless question. She knew the answer. "You're one of her pawns, too," Mai added callously. "She may have anticipated all of my moves, but don't think she hasn't anticipated all of yours, too. Even the ones you two didn't script out."
Toph looked seriously at the ground. "Have you ever played pai sho with Ursa?"
It was a random question. "No," Mai answered, shaking her head.
"I listen to her and Iroh sometimes." Toph turned her eyes to Mai. She seemed to know that made people a little uncomfortable. "You're the type that grew up playing those strategy games, right? I bet you were really good."
"It used to make Azula really angry," Mai replied softly, remembering.
Toph nodded. "They're fun to listen to when they play. I don't think they care who wins, and they're both really good at just making the game interesting." Toph paused. "You don't play with Zuko, do you?"
"No... he doesn't like losing. He doesn't have much patience for the game."
Toph smiled crookedly. "Yeah. He's like that when Iroh makes him play. He says it's like Iroh's playing Zuko's pieces as well as his own, like Zuko has no control at all. Was Azula like that?"
Mai remembered. They hadn't played much, just enough for Azula to realize Mai could see her weaknesses there. Mai could still see her pai sho board burning, Azula's smile. "A bit," she said, her mouth dry.
Toph just nodded. "The thing is, Mai, I don't think Ursa's your opponent here. I think she's just trying to make the game interesting."
Mai might have underestimated this girl. She didn't think they were Toph's words, not really, but Toph had delivered them well. Nevertheless, Mai sighed. "You don't understand, Toph. What she's asking... it's more than just making things interesting."
"I understand fine." Mai had clearly hit a nerve. "I can't believe I have to say this to you/, but I think you're letting your emotions get in your way. You have to step back and think. You're so caught up in these totally selfish ideas of happiness..." Toph clenched her hands into fists. "You know what? Just write it down, and I'll take your message to Ursa. But you're /really not going to like what she has to say."
Mai was more frustrated than she had been in ages.
Toph had been right; Mai did not like what Ursa's reply had contained. Toph seemed to have known as much, and made herself scarce as soon as the letter was in Mai's hands. It was more stern than Ursa had ever been with Mai in the past, but instead of contrite, Mai just felt more angry than ever. She wasn't sure what to do. She considered avoiding having children forever, just to spite the woman.
"Mai?" Zuko stepped out of the shadows. He had clearly been waiting for her. "What's going on?"
She wanted to tell him. She had wanted to tell him since it all started. Instead, she had been avoiding him as much as was possible. That generally worked. He had a tendency to assume she was either dealing with Fire Lord problems that she would smooth over before word of them ever reached Zuko, or he had done something wrong, and either way, she needed her space. Mai felt a little guilty manipulating him like that, and she knew she couldn't have kept it up forever. Since Ursa's first letter, it had been more tempting than ever to simply lose herself in Zuko's arms, forgetting their titles and duties, but it was an urge she had forced herself to master; she just couldn't shake the suspicion that Ursa had been counting on it.
"What's wrong?" he persisted. He was so gentle, but there was a certain amount of confidence there, as if he knew he wasn't the problem. It was enough to put Mai on her guard.
"It's nothing, Zuko."
"It's something, Mai," he countered, embracing her. "What can I do?" Mai felt a wave of temptation wash over her, threatening to crush her resolve and take her knees down with it. But it passed.
"Nothing. I told you, it's nothing." Mai gently pulled away and offered her own version of a reassuring smile.
Zuko was unconvinced. He met her eyes, concerned, adoring, searching for the answer. Another wave, even stronger, washed over her, but Mai held her ground.
She had to know. "Did you get a letter today? From your mother?"
He frowned. "I did, actually. She was just replying... How did you know?"
Mai's head reeled. She was, if possible, more furious than she had been with her own letters. She had considered Zuko a constant in her calculations, and to find out he had been a part of Ursa's all along... It was all Mai could do to stay on her feet. She felt completely outmatched.
Zuko's voice was concerned, almost frightened. "Mai? Seriously, what's wrong?"
"Your mother..." Mai managed. She fumbled in her sleeve for the letter, the one that had started it all, and passed it to Zuko.
He seemed reluctant to take his eyes off of her long enough to read it, but once he managed, he just looked more confused. "I don't understand. Why are you upset about the weather in the Earth Kingdom?"
"It's a metaphor, Zuko. Remember? We talked about those... It's not just the weather, it's spring, and... " Mai gave up. "She thinks I ought to be pregnant by now."
That caught Zuko off guard.
"And I think she knew that I would get distant with you, and you would write for help, and then she could tell you to seduce me." The look on his face was confirmation enough. "She knows us, Zuko."
Zuko looked stunned. "You've been worried about this the whole time? Why didn't you tell me?" Before Mai could answer, Zuko continued, "I was hoping you'd bring it up sooner. The issue of an heir has been coming up lately."
This was news to Mai. About the court. And from Zuko.
"I... haven't heard anything about it," Mai confessed.
Zuko looked at her almost guiltily. "I told them... There were things I didn't want you to hear."
Mai understood. Unlike Zuko, she had never been very popular, and she suspected the criticism against her for not immediately producing a prince must have recently become much more harsh; Zuko had been shielding her from it.
"It's not their fault," Mai sighed. "I do forget sometimes that we aren't just Mai and Zuko anymore." She met his eyes. "What do you think we should do?"
Zuko shrugged. That wouldn't do.
"As Fire Lord," she prompted him, "what do you think we should do?"
"We should have an heir," he admitted, then added, "if you think so."
Mai sighed. It would have to do for now. Zuko would never be his father, and that was mostly a good thing, but there were times...
"What does Fire Lady Mai think?" he asked, unable to read her silence.
Mai smiled slightly. "She agrees that we do need an heir." She leaned her head on Zuko's shoulder. "And she's sorry she didn't realize it sooner. I'm still scared, though," Mai confessed.
Zuko embraced her. She let that wave wash over her again, and lost herself in it.
"I will need to go and speak with your mother," she admitted.
"What? But... Why?"
"It will be a big change for me, Zuko. There are things I need to ask her."
"What kinds of things? Can't you just put it in a letter?"
"No. I can't put it in a letter. This is very personal."
"I put personal things in my letters all the time."
"I know. And I keep... we all keep telling you you should stop doing that."
"And do what instead? Fly all over the world to explain myself properly because the alternative is talking about... about/ clouds/ when what I really mean to be talking about are the financial affairs of the nation?"
Mai was silent for a moment. "You don't really write anyone about the financial affairs of the nation, do you? Please tell me you haven't done that."
Zuko mumbled, "Mother and Uncle are very helpful."
"What?" he challenged.
Mai looked around quickly to make sure they were alone before pulling Zuko's face to her own. She kissed him hungrily, making up for lost time, and after the few moments it took him to realize what was happening, he returned the kiss.
When Mai eventually broke away, just far enough to appreciate the pleasantly stunned expression on Zuko's face, he asked, "What was that for?"
Mai shrugged. "I like you sometimes when you're being stupid and frustrated." She kissed him again. "Also, I missed this a lot. Being together. I'm sorry I was avoiding you."
"It's all right, Mai." He was always quick to forgive her when she was being affectionate. "I guess I can't really imagine what this is like for you. I'll arrange for us to to go and see her."
"I forget sometimes that you were Azula's friend," Ursa smiled. "In her eyes, I don't think Iroh was ever in line for the throne. She just always assumed it would somehow pass to her father."
Mai nodded. "But even so, you must have an idea."
"I have never been in your position, Mai; I was never Fire Lady, and I was never truly in line to be. I technically didn't need to worry about bearing or raising heirs."
"Technically," Mai noted, sipping her tea.
Ursa looked at her with an understanding that made Mai a little uncomfortable.
Mai looked at her tea. "What can I expect?" she asked, trying to keep her fear from spilling into her voice.
"Pressure. It will not seem enough to simply have a child. Everyone will want and expect signs that your child is somehow exceptional." Ursa's eyes dropped. "It is important to remember that those are not necessarily good signs. Azula was very nearly the exact child they all wanted, and Zuko was the disappointment. They can be wrong. You have to be strong enough to realize that."
"What was it like for you?" Mai found the courage to ask softly.
Ursa smiled at her fondly, but there was a sadness there Mai could never truly understand. "Different. You're lucky to have Zuko."
Mai nodded, feeling mildly ashamed of being so scared when she had Zuko by her side.
"Be brave, Mai," Ursa told her, calmly, soothingly. "It's time to grow up."
Mai had to wonder if all this anxiety could possibly be worth it. Months after finally giving in to her mother-in-law's urging, Mai found herself no closer to delivering the heir that was expected of her. That would have been maddening on its own, but almost everyone seemed to be making things worse. Ursa was still writing; after staying quiet on the issue for a while, she had sent one incredibly blunt letter of advice in case Mai got desperate. It began "When I conceived Zuko...", but Mai had been unable to read any farther. It was still unread, balled up inside her sleeve, somehow still embarrassing her. Iroh had been sending a selection of teas to promote fertility, to be helpful in his own way, but Mai didn't think she was that desperate either. Zuko was doing his best to gather helpful advice, but as most of it seemed to be coming from Sokka, Mai was dubious. And then, of course, there was Sokka himself. He and his family had arrived, unannounced as ever. Mai was in no mood to entertain, and had never been close enough to any of them to actually open up about this, but Zuko had actually insisted that it would be good for her to spend some time with Suki, and in the interest of encouraging Zuko to be more assertive, Mai had conceded. That would have been awkward enough, but that time with Suki more often than not included the daughter.
"Kara," Suki said, making a slight face. "It wasn't my first choice, but... we sort of... owed Katara, so that's who she's named for."
Mai looked at her slightly questioningly, which was enough of a prompt for Suki to explain. "It would have been enough that she kept the secret, and came running and did basically everything when my time came, but... well, Sokka thought it would be some genius combination of hilarious and prudent to 'run drills' and test her with a false alarm. Or two. She is amazingly patient with him, but we definitely had to do something to make it up to her, so Kara it was. Not the name I'd have chosen, but... well, I can't deny it almost fits."
Mai tried to smile, but it was a clumsy attempt.
Suki hadn't seemed to notice; her own reaction to Mai's silences seemed to be talking enough for the both of them. "Sorry we didn't tell you guys sooner, but... well, I mean I was in no real shape to deal with anyone. I hated that 'delicate' could be used to describe me at all, you know? But Sokka, he was insane. He was insisting that everything be perfect, so he wanted to go out and get all this stuff, but he didn't want to leave me, or allow me to leave. He was bouncing off the walls by the end of it. I really don't know what we would've done without Katara." Suki paused a moment and smiled awkwardly. "Did you want to hold her?" she offered.
Mai nodded politely and reached out for the girl, scarcely believing how quickly the child seemed to have grown. It was a living reminder of Mai's own failure. In the interest of conversation, however, she managed to say, "She has Sokka's eyes."
"Yeah." Suki grinned. She seemed so happy. It was making Mai furious and bitterly jealous for reasons she couldn't quite rationalize, and keeping any of that from bubbling to the surface was a struggle. Suki's polite questions about Mai's hopes for her own family had all somehow ended up sounding cruel and jeering in Mai's ears, wearing her gradually down to nothing by the end of the afternoon.
Believing she had finally become that desperate, she forced herself to read Ursa's letter. It wasn't until her second time through the extremely explicit contents that Mai realized the truth; hiding behind the embarrassing straightforwardness was another message, and not a happy one. It was the simple truth that the Fire Nation needed an heir, and the more painful one that if Mai was not to be its source, she would have to find another and convince Zuko to accept it. Acknowledging that was hard enough, but she and Ursa both seemed to understand that Mai would need to be the one to force his hand, and the idea alone was enough to break her heart. Mai hoped it could have some time to mend before she needed to present the notion to Zuko; she would have to be strong, or he would never agree.
But strength would have to wait. When Zuko found her, she was actually crying. She had hoped to shed her tears privately, and tried to quickly invent some story, some excuse to give him, but he didn't give her the need for one. Instead, he had just folded his arms around her protectively until her sobs subsided.
"It's going to be fine, Mai," he promised.
"You don't know that." It was only partially unintelligible.
"We have each other. That's all that really matters."
Mai started sobbing afresh, burying her face in her hands.
"What? Mai, what's wrong? What did I say?" Zuko sounded slightly panicked.
Mai could only manage to shake her head.
Delicately, as though he might break her, Zuko took Mai's hands away and searched her face for some kind of answer. She couldn't meet his eyes. "Mai... Please, I'm no good at this."
Unable to control her breath long enough to explain anything, Mai just leaned into his chest, hoping that would be enough to assure him it wasn't his fault.
He seemed to accept that well enough. "It'll happen, Mai. It'll be fine," he said, though he sounded so bewildered. "Just, please, tell me what I can do."
"I just need you to be here right now, Zuko," Mai managed to say, vaguely appreciating the irony that Zuko was needing some comfort from her.
"Okay." That seemed to calm him, and he wrapped his arms around her again. After a few moments of silence that Mai used to try to regather herself, Zuko blurted, "It's just annoying... I don't see why everyone's making a big deal. It isn't as though we're not trying."
Mai managed to hold back the tears. "That's why it's a big deal, Zuko. You see that, don't you?"
He looked sheepish and managed a few more moments of silence. "I just can't understand how we can possibly be getting this part wrong. I talked to Sokka and unless he gave me a really modest estimate, which I don't think is likely--"
"Stop talking, Zuko."
It was only a few minutes before he started again, "All of these stupid expectations..."
Mai cut him off with a kiss, tugging at his robes until he got the idea. It wouldn't buy her too much time, but it would allow her enough to regain her composure. If nothing else, it was a pleasant distraction.
Weeks later, Mai still hadn't worked up the nerve or the emotional steeliness to talk to Zuko about his mother's letter. She wasn't quite sure how to present the case in a way that he might accept it, or how she would possibly keep herself together if he did.
Mai was lying awake, trying to figure out how she could get the scene to play out in the least painful way possible, when Zuko whispered her name. She turned to face him.
"Mai, I know you're worried," he started, hesitant. She didn't try to deny it. "I know there's a lot to worry about. Especially for you. But... I want you to know that I've thought about it, and no matter what you say, I'm not going to take another wife."
She was stunned. Not only had Zuko mustered the nerve to bring this up first, but it sounded like he had been rehearsing for awhile. "How long have you known?" she asked.
"Well, only for sure since I found that letter my mother sent you." He misinterpreted Mai's silence and continued, "I'm sorry, I wouldn't normally have even read it, but you were upset and I didn't know why, and then I found it and it was all tear-stained and I just thought..."
"You figured out the letter?"
Mai blinked at him, unable to respond.
"Mai, I'm not stupid... all the time, anyway... I mean, it was one of my mother's letters. And it was right there in the part about 'putting aside inhibitions', wasn't it?"
She nodded, impressed.
Zuko looked momentarily pleased with himself before his face fell. "But I've actually been forced to think about... that... for months. Anyone at court with a daughter has been trying to put her in my path. But like I said, I'm not stupid. I've been studying Fire Nation history lately, trying to figure out what they've done when... trying to find..." Zuko gathered himself. "Mai, if this... doesn't happen... with us... I was... er... I'm going to name your brother as the heir. If... if that's okay."
Mai was taken aback at the simplicity of it. "It's not a bad move," she admitted approvingly.
He smiled. "I was worried you hadn't mentioned it because you thought it was a bad idea... but then figured you might just not want to bring it up because it might seem too ambitious on your part, but if I brought it up, it might be... better. But then I figured if you thought it was a good idea, you'd have given me a sign or hint or something... I guess I missed them."
"You give me too much credit sometimes, Zuko. There were no signs to miss," she assured him.
"Can you be a little less worried now?"
She nodded; some of the weight had seemed to lift.
He looked relieved. "Now I'm just sorry I didn't bring it up sooner. After my mother's letter, I was a little worried that you might reject the idea and start trying to talk me into... exploring other options." Mai smiled at the euphemism. "I didn't think I could handle that," he said seriously.
"You were that opposed to 'other options'?"
"Well, yeah." Zuko seemed surprised she would have to ask. "You're..." He was never very good at finding the right words for this. "You're the only girl."
"Really? No nice Earth Kingdom 'other options' ever warranted exploration?"
"That... " he realized she was teasing him. "Not really. Never seriously."
"But we were apart for so long..."
Zuko smiled and shrugged. Then suddenly frowned. "Wait, are you saying that /you/..."
His jealousy was touching enough that Mai decided to be serious. "Never."
Zuko looked pleased. He stumbled to find the words to tell her something romantic. After a few false starts, a cloud of guilt seem to pass over him, and he averted his eyes. "I've had to hurt you enough already. I couldn't even consider what they wanted in a way that didn't seem like betraying you. That might be the difference. I've had to disappoint you before, I know, but I hope I've never done anything like that... like giving up on you. I don't think I could do that."
He was always more eloquent talking about his guilt as opposed to his feelings, Mai reflected. And as far as his rehearsed speeches went, this was definitely one of the better ones. "You can be extremely sweet sometimes, you know that?"
"I wouldn't have forced you into anyone else's arms because I don't love you, you know. It would have been devastating for me," Mai confessed, even knowing it would mean Zuko would certainly never take that course. "But I didn't want to put my own happiness before your success as a ruler."
"What kind of ruler could I really be if I just put you aside like that?"
Mai felt a rush of affection for his effort to share this burden with her. "I love you, Zuko." She put her hand to the scarred side of his face, and he leaned into her palm. "All of this, the stress, the pressure, your mother... even putting myself aside... I'd do anything for you." It was something Mai had known vaguely since she had first known Zuko, something even Azula had been perceptive enough to exploit for years, yet Mai didn't think she had ever actually said it.
"I know," he replied, pulling her closer. "I'm so sorry I haven't been able to do the same."
"Zuko," Mai chided him gently, "don't ruin the moment by feeling guilty."
Mai had to smile at that.
"You two have been relatively nauseating lately," Suki conceded. "It might even be worse than after your honeymoon."
"Thank you!" Sokka threw an arm around her, sure that would settle it.
"Not while there's you guys with the baby... there's no way you can complain about us." Zuko maintained. "Especially now with the new nickname."
"It is a perfectly wonderful nickname for a perfectly wonderful girl, and don't you dare say otherwise. You're just upset because we gave her a title."
"Princess Snowflake is a ridiculous name." Zuko maintained.
"Now you're just talking nonsense."
It had been Toph who started calling her 'Snowflake', rather obviously mocking Sokka's belief that his was the most special, unique, and amazing baby girl in the history of the world. In true Sokka fashion, however, he had simply embraced the name, encouraging Suki to do the same, and he was met with little enough resistance there.
"How can you even say that with a straight face?!" Zuko asked incredulously.
"Where is the little Princess Snowflake this evening?" Mai asked Suki.
"Don't encourage him!" Zuko groaned.
"With her aunt, who is probably trying to undo Sokka's work for the day." Suki smiled.
"I /told /you, I am perfectly capable of disciplining her, or I will be, but she's nowhere near old enough for that yet... And that's also why I'm not convinced it is even possible to spoil her this soon. I'll lay off when she reaches an appropriate age for that sort of thing." Even Zuko raised his eyebrow doubtfully at that. "What?! You don't think I can?" Sokka challenged.
"No, I don't. I don't think you could play the bad guy to your daughter if your life depended on it," Zuko said seriously, being the expert in parental discipline.
"Well not all of us have experience in that role, I guess!" Sokka countered. "And that's generally considered a good thing. But I suppose you wouldn't know anything about that."
"I just hope you keep your daughter away from my kid; at this rate, she's going to be a terrible influence."
"What kid?" Sokka retaliated.
"/Sokka/..." Suki hissed at him, watching Mai's reaction.
"I know, but... He has no right giving me parental advice!" Sokka whined. "Yet," he added, when Suki glared at him. "I'm sure he will soon, though," he continued, mostly to Mai. "He can't weasel out of the competition that easily. He's gotta have kids eventually," he mumbled, mostly to himself.
"Of course he will," Suki said. "With all this one-upmanship you two have going, Mai's probably going to have twins."
"Boys, too," Zuko added confidently while Sokka glared at him.
"Let's hope so, so you two have one less way that you can compare them," Suki groaned.
"Come on, Suki! Show a little confidence in our Princess! She could beat a dozen scarred little fire offspring any day!"
"You... Scars aren't... I... I can't even begin to start explaining how much of that is wrong..." Zuko manged, completely baffled.
"Yeah, I bet you can't." Sokka considered the argument won.
Zuko looked to Mai for help, but she just shook her head.
After what had arguably been one of their more successful double dates with Suki and Sokka, Zuko took Mai aside.
"I'm going to be a good father, right?"
Mai sighed. "Yes, you're going to be fine, you're going to be better than Sokka, and he will be forced to admit that you are the better man. Shrines will be built to honor your superior fathering skills."
"That's not..." Zuko shook his head. "I mean, I'm going to be a good father, right?"
Mai considered him a moment. "You're not actually worried about that, are you?"
"Mai," he insisted, sounding incredibly vulnerable.
"Zuko, you're going to be fine. Great, even. I wouldn't even be trying to make you a father if I didn't think so."
"But... what if I'm not?"
Mai hoped no one else was listening; Zuko did not sound like a Fire Lord at this moment. "You're fine with my brother." Tom-Tom had been spending more time at the palace, at Zuko's and Mai's insistence. Mai had always been good with her baby brother, and she thought he and Zuko had been getting on okay.
"That's different..." Zuko insisted. After a drawn out silence, he confessed, "Sokka won't let me babysit for his daughter.
Mai could have laughed, but this was clearly eating at Zuko, so instead she told him gently, "Of course not. But that's Sokka's problem, not yours."
"But he lets everyone else watch her... even Toph."
"That's because everyone else isn't a threat to Sokka's fathering abilities."
Zuko looked at her dubiously.
"Talk to Suki. She won't have any problems with it, because you're going to be a wonderful father," Mai attempted to persuade him.
"But... what if I'm not?" he asked again, and Mai began to hope this wouldn't be one of those circular arguments Zuko could sometimes be prone to. "What if I'm like..."
"You're your mother's son," Mai assured him.
He looked at her, desperately wanting to believe that.
"Besides," she added, "if you're not up to par, Sokka's definitely going to win." She poked him in the chest. "And I won't let that happen without a fight."
Mai wished the awkwardness had not worn off.
Katara had been more determined than anyone to forge some kind of bond with Mai after the war had ended, and had quickly forced herself to get past Mai's intimidating demeanor. It seemed it would only get worse after Mai had married Zuko, particularly when Mai found she had some need for Katara's abilities. Zuko never meant to burn Mai, but occasionally, in his more passionate moments, he could lose control. They were never especially serious, and she didn't particularly mind, but the burns were bothersome enough that Mai wouldn't pass up an opportunity to have them healed. Overwhelmed with embarrassment though she was, Katara did her job admirably. And silently, at first. But the awkwardness had faded, and Mai's need of Katara's skills had not. The worst of it was that it was near impossible, even for Mai, to stay clear of Katara's intoxicating optimism.
Mai didn't want to get her hopes up. It was just too soon to know, and she couldn't bear the thought of being wrong. Disappointing herself would be hard enough, but she just couldn't risk disappointing Zuko, let alone anyone else who might find out. So while she had been half-tempted to share her suspicions with Katara, as if that might give her hopes life, Mai had quickly come to her senses. Just not fast enough to escape Katara's notice.
"Have you thought of any names?" It was a leading question, and not the first time Katara had asked. She seemed to know there was something Mai was holding back, and that it was easiest for Mai to forget herself during one of these healing sessions.
Mai kept her face expressionless and answered, "No."
"Right." Mai had been believable enough, but Katara wasn't buying it. "Does Zuko have any ideas, then?"
"I don't know." Mai looked over to Kara, who was happily entertaining herself. Katara seemed convinced that her brother was unfit to be a real parent, and took it upon herself to babysit as often as possible. It was a sign of how little an effect Mai had on her anymore that Katara felt perfectly comfortable bringing her niece along while she tended to Mai.
"Are you going to name it after anyone in the family?" Katara asked casually.
Mai watched Kara chew on some toy Sokka had made for her. "Is that safe?" Mai asked, hoping to draw Katara's attention elsewhere.
"Zuko may want to name it after someone in the group," Katara mentioned, pausing to extract some crudely carved object out of her niece's mouth. "Sokka says Zuko asked him, in case it's a boy."
Mai knew she was being baited. "I don't know anything about that."
"I take it that's not your first choice?"
"If I had a list, it would be near the bottom."
Katara pouted silently for a bit before admitting defeat. "You should have seen me sooner. Some of these may scar," she admonished instead.
Mai felt a twinge of guilt for not being totally honest with Katara. While it was true she didn't keep some list of possible baby names, it was also true that she simply couldn't afford that kind of optimism. It was a luxury that would simply make her too vulnerable to disappointment, and she needed to save her thoughts for backup plans, not waste them on fantasies. It wouldn't have been difficult to share this with Katara; it was pragmatic enough that she might even understand Mai's logic. The difficult part would be withstanding Katara's counterargument, urging Mai to be less cynical. There was a side of Mai that desperately wanted to give in and do just that, and it would just be too tempting to resist if Katara got going, which was not something Mai could risk, so she remained silent.
"Hey Mai," Toph said, bursting in. "I was told I'd find you here. I have a letter for you, and some more tea from Iroh."
"Thank you, Toph."
"I'm finished," Katara said brusquely, taking Kara in her arms. "I'll leave you two to your tea."
"Oh, I don't need that tea," Toph laughed. Then she frowned, concentrating. "And I guess Mai... Well, sorry it took so long to get it to you, but congratulations, I guess. Doesn't sound like you needed it either."
"Wait... Congratulations?" Mai asked hesitantly, not daring to believe. "On what?"
"What else? The baby."
Katara nearly dropped her niece.
"Be careful with Snowflake. I like that kid." Toph cautioned her, before turning back to Mai. "You didn't know?"
"Not for sure, no."
"Oh." Toph shrugged. "I would have thought having an extra heartbeat would tip you off, but..."
"You're positive?!" Katara's voice was an octave higher than normal, and climbing. Mai wished Toph had waited until Katara had left and they were alone.
Toph seemed to have come to the same conclusion. "I just know what I'm hearing."
"But this is...! Oh, Mai! This is such amazing news! Can you tell if it's a boy or a girl?!" Katara asked Toph, at this point incapable of accommodating both excitement and reason.
"What? Of course not, Katara. I can just hear it."
"We should go tell Zuko!" Katara squealed, seizing Mai.
Mai smiled. "I'll go tell Zuko," she said calmly. She'd never admit it to anyone, but she was a little grateful Katara was there; Katara's over-the-top excitement kept Mai from losing control of her own just yet.
"I'll come! This is just so wonderful!"
"You do that, Katara. After all, this is just as much about you as it is Mai and Zuko. I'm sure it would be not at all intrusive if you tag along and share in their private moment. I'm just gonna stay here, though, if that's okay."
Katara looked like she wanted to protest, but had nothing to say. Mai slipped out in the confusion and went to find Zuko before Katara found some way to tell him first.
Though Mai's cynicism hardly vanished over the next few months, her happiness was overpowering. Sokka still managed to be terrified of her, and his fears only seemed to grow as Mai did. He had wanted to flee for as much of Mai's pregnancy as he could manage, but Zuko and Suki managed to persuade him to stay, convincing Sokka that his experience was needed. Mai was grateful for that, not just because Zuko definitely needed a friend around, but because Suki was daily becoming more valuable to Mai.
Mai had hesitated even announcing her condition to her own mother, and the reply she received was brief and unhelpful, too proper to be of any real use. Ursa would have been considerably more useful, like her reply to Mai's announcement, but she would never allow herself to return to the Fire Nation. Katara was as relentlessly helpful as her experience allowed her be, which was comforting in its own way, but it was Suki's council Mai most appreciated, not in the least because it was often extremely blunt.
"Oh, trust me, you'll want Katara around. It doesn't always seem like it, but... Well, she earned that namesake."
Mai nodded. "I can't believe you managed to do this on your own."
"I had Sokka."
"That's what I mean."
Suki laughed. "I wasn't really a stranger to it. It's different for girls who grew up like Katara and me. Our villages didn't have servants or anything to take care of that stuff, so we had to help each other out. You can learn quite a lot that way."
Mai felt slightly embarrassed.
"Don't worry, that's why you have us," Suki assured her, smiling. "You'll be fine."
Sokka chose that moment to burst in with his daughter, disrupting the conversation. "Suki, I demand to know what you were thinking!" Before Suki could even ask, Sokka continued, "Leaving Snowflake with Zuko?! Alone?! What was that? The minute I turn my back, you pull something like this? Are you testing me? I can't believe you don't see what's wrong with this."
"We were fine, Sokka, like I've told you," Zuko protested. "We were fine," he repeated to Suki.
"Thankfully, I got her before he could do any real damage," Sokka said, holding up the girl to inspect her. "I mean," he lowered his voice, "you've heard what he's done to Mai."
"What's that?" Mai asked, watching the color drain out of Sokka's cheeks as he turned, noticing her for the first time.
"I can't believe you'd repeat that!" Zuko sputtered.
"You were bragging to Sokka?" Mai asked quietly.
"It wasn't bragging. And he was talking about..." Zuko shot a quick glance to Kara. "...stuff... that he did... to Suki. We were more... lamenting. That's all."
"Competitive lamenting is bragging, Zuko," Mai sighed, trying not to blush.
"Sokka," Suki said sternly. "As you can see, I was enjoying a conversation with Mai. Zuko offered to babysit. I accepted. As I've done several times before." She paused to let Sokka process that. "He's great with her, Sokka. And at least he's never given the baby a weapon."
Sokka sputtered. "That was one time! And it was just a boomerang! And it was/ adorable!/"
"Give the baby back to Zuko. If he doesn't mind, you can help him babysit."
Zuko smirked as Sokka was forced to surrender his princess and follow him out of the room.
"Sorry about that," Suki said brightly. "He puts on the show, but really, Sokka's just worried Kara will like Zuko better. He couldn't bear that. I keep telling him if he keeps acting this ridiculous, it won't be a contest, but... well... Sokka."
"Thank you again for letting Zuko watch her. He seems to be less convinced that he's going to be a horrible father."
"I'm sure Sokka's been helping with that," Suki laughed. "You two will be fine."
"I know." Mai smiled softly. Though his competition with Sokka had at least been fiercely motivating, Zuko had been getting more anxious about his impending fatherhood, but from her end of things, Mai could finally see the pieces falling into place.
"So, if I promise not to tell Katara, will you tell me what names you guys were considering?"
"Roku," Mai whispered, trying her son's name for the first time. It had been Zuko's suggestion, and one that clearly meant enough to him that Mai had accepted it immediately.
Zuko was smiling, more proud and content than Mai had ever seen him.
"Should we bring in the others?" Mai asked softly. She hated to end this moment, but the bickering in the hallway was getting more and more difficult to ignore.
"If we must," Zuko sighed, stroking his son's head before he went to the door.
"That was completely uncalled for is all I'm saying," Katara was hissing at Toph.
Zuko shot Sokka questioning look. "Eh, Katara wouldn't tell us anything, so Toph kinda pulled the truth out of her, and now Katara's all mad, like we wouldn't have found out it was boy in a couple minutes anyway."
"That's..." Katara started sputtering. "Is this him?" Suki asked, attempting to change the subject. "No, this is just some other baby they picked up," Sokka replied. "Of course it's him, Suki." Suki shot Sokka a dangerous look and he immediately went quiet and joined her to admire the prince.
Zuko rejoined Mai and their son as the others gathered for a closer look.
"We're going to call him Roku," Zuko announced, looking at Aang.
"That's a great name for him," Aang said. His smile was lopsided and vaguely sad, one of his Avatar smiles. Katara took his hand and brought him closer.
"Nephew, he looks perfect." Iroh slapped Zuko on the back.
"Thank you, Uncle." Zuko seemed to fit the role of a proud father better than Mai could have ever hoped, holding his own even against the world's proudest great-uncle.
Not to be outdone, Sokka approached Zuko and hit him on the back even harder. "Yeah, really great, Zuko. Second best baby I've ever seen."
"Yeah... Thanks, Sokka."
The celebrations went on into the night, the sky kept bright with celebratory firebending. For the first time in her reign as Fire Lady, the entire country seemed to love and celebrate Mai, and for once, she couldn't have cared less.