Zuko was really happy that his mother, in her infinite wisdom, had arranged his marriage to Mai as early as their childhood. It meant that, in the long run, he didn't need a matchmaker to woo Mai's parents into letting him marry her (not that his current state as a Fire Lord would be a grand enticement). He didn't need to burn Mai's birth date in front of the altar to wait for three blighted days to see if anything inauspicious happens. He also didn't need to negotiate and send betrothal gifts. All because Ursa had arranged it for him well before he knew he was ever going to be candidate for Fire Lord.
So what was left in their grand romance was selecting a wedding date, which was what the entire announcement for the engagement was about. Everybody in the Fire Nation knew he was engaged to Mai. The engagement party had been to tell the rest of the nation, that yes, they were pushing through with the old plans, and to tell everybody outside the Fire Nation that, yes, Mai was going to be his bride.
It however, did not prepare him for trying to watch the most fertile couple in the land (thirteen children in ten years) build his marriage bed in the Fire Lord's quarters with a grumpy father, a too cheerful uncle and the rest of his friends. He was smoothing the sheets after the third time Ozai claimed he was sorry for tripping the Avatar, who incidentally had been running around being completely useless anyway, while Uncle Iroh was pushing the plump cushion onto the extremely large bed.
Zuko was secretly pleased that he only had to haul the bed up instead of trying to figure out how to be a carpenter and really do it. Else he didn't know what would have happened. The auspicious couple had since gone out of the room after the bare minimum of preparing the bed and left the unruly group to themselves.
"That's a pretty large bed, Zuko, what are you planning to do with it?" this coming from Aang.
Zuko heard a slap of the palm; most probably Sokka's connecting to his face. Zuko mildly wondered if Sokka really wanted Aang to get hints of what happened between a male and a female if Aang was currently hung up on Katara. Seriously.
Iroh was hiding a laugh behind the facade of drinking tea. His father simply looked like he could not be bothered. But at least he had come. When Zuko had told his father that he was pushing through with the betrothal he and Ursa had arranged, Zuko had thought the former Fire Lord would simply not care. Or maybe he was simply bored out of his mind with the water tribe. Zuko had given him a rotating schedule to visit all of the places he had conquered to continue the Avatar's education of Ozai, and he was supposed to be in the Southern water tribes now.
"Play on it? It gives a nice bounce when it's this large." Zuko deadpanned. Mai's dry humor was rubbing off on him. He couldn't even believe he said that. He heard Sokka's face and palm connect again, but he didn't want to look. He'd end up laughing. Aang proceeded to try the bed, but Zuko got fed up and sent him a little fire bending to keep him off. "I just changed the sheets. Stay off."
"Nephew, the reason the avatar is here is so that children could play on the bed," Iroh reminded him softly. Children playing on the marriage bed after it was constructed would be good for fertility according to the sages. And Zuko and Mai were having the most traditional of all weddings because it was the Fire Lord's duty to uphold the nation's culture. Sometimes he wanted to throttle his Uncle for foisting that title on him. Just for the marriage rituals alone.
Ozai started laughing and throwing a handful of dates, oranges and lotus seeds while trying to pelt the avatar with it. Zuko groaned, he really did not want to know what his father found amusing. That and they were messing up the bed. He should have known that he should have kept this strictly private, but his father had wanted to see. And it was his father's old room, what could he do but give in? It's the first time since Sozin's comet that he and his father had this male bonding moment. Or whatever it is that this charade passed for. Besides, his uncle had told him that it was time to forgive his father for being such an ass. He didn't have to like the man for Ozai to be present for the wedding.
And then the rest of the gang decided that they wanted to see the bed too. Which is where the entire trouble began in the first place. How was he going to get children on the bed if all the males he knew in existence were already on it.
Sokka was already rooting for pomegranates that Ozai was throwing about, and Aang was going for the lotus seeds. And no matter how childish they looked at the moment, they were not children, which was what tradition demanded. Because that was what they were wishing for with the marriage bed. A lot of children and in no way was he wishing for a lot of Sokkas and Aangs. One of each was enough for his lifetime.
He opened the suite doors, where a bunch of rag tag children were assembled. He sighed as he waved towards the bed. Ozai was still throwing the treats that symbolized fertility on it. "Well, if you can fight with them for the fruit, you've more than earned it."
He then sat beside his uncle as he watched the mad scramble. "Are you sure that it's supposed to be fun watching them?"
"I remember it being better when I was married," Iroh said after watching for a while. "Oh, don't forget, tonight's the night when Mai's family pulls off the music night for the groom."
Zuko groaned. He hated music night; this was going to be a long version of it, with Mai's parents and family being there and Mai nowhere to commiserate. Aang zipped towards him, half of a sliver of orange hanging through his mouth. He brought up a thread and tied it around Zuko's hand. "For good luck."
Zuko stared at his wrist for a moment, and then looked across the room. His father was staring at a similar thread around his wrist with an indescribable look on his face.
"Yeah, for luck." Zuko echoed.
In the five years that Azula had been institutionalized, so to speak, there had been signs of wonderful improvement. So much so that she had been allowed to join the festivities surrounding the wedding of the century, as a lot of people had started calling it. There were rumors that it could only be beaten by the Avatar's own nuptials.
Ty Lee had also joined in, and it almost felt like old times, with less of Azula's hormonal anger. Of course, Azula was not really into singing laments but she was all into cursing the matchmaker and all of their parents. "Whose harebrained idea was it in the first place to betroth the two most idiotic people in the world anyway? Marrying Miss Deadpan to Mister Leap-before-you-think."
"But their aura is pink together, Azula." Ty Lee pointed out. "Oh, but I'm supposed to go: I curse the matchmaker and your parents!"
"Better curse Mai's parents too!" Suki reminded her cheerfully. Suki was the only one of Zuko's friends that Mai had been comfortable enough to invite to the wedding preparations on her end. That and Mai was pretty sure that Suki could handle Azula, and Ty Lee being an adopted Kiyoshi warrior would not leave her out of the conversations.
Mai sighed. Really, she didn't get the point of retreating into her own room for days since she's actually seen and been with Zuko for the past five years anyway. It wasn't exactly the most traditional of all betrothals especially since he had left her twice.
"Let's just forget about this part of tradition and finish the ritual cleansing?" Mai ordered as she scrubbed herself with a rag while glaring at Azula. The pomelo infused waters gave a nice citrus scent in the room that was heady but also a little grating on the nerves. She didn't think she'd get enough lamenting from these three anyway. She honestly didn't know why her parents even bothered with that.
Suki, because she wasn't Fire Nation, didn't really understand most of the rituals. Ty Lee pouted, because Ty Lee loved tradition, even if it meant largely wailing and bemoaning the fact that Mai was leaving her household. Azula though, promptly doused her with a load of pomelo water and offered her one set of under things.
"Maybe we should get a matchmaker and betroth you too, Azula," Mai suggested as she dried herself with a towel that Ty Lee had given her. Suki snickered at that while helping Mai dry herself. Mai could think of a couple of people that were ambitious enough to want to marry Azula. She just didn't think it was wise politically for her and Zuko to bargain his sister away.
"I can stand alone," Azula retorted as Mai snatched the undergarments from the princess' fingers and stepped into them. Azula had already prepared the dragon-and-phoenix candles in an arc around the bathing chambers and snapped to light them.
The firebending was a little erratic, but it settled to a low light. Mai gave Azula a look that she had hoped conveyed 'behave', before she sat in front of the dragon-and-phoenix candles to let her hair be arranged by either Azula or Tai Lee. Suki didn't know enough of the Fire Nation styles to fix hair. Mai let out a small laugh when she saw the intertwining of the dragon and the phoenix in front of her. Azula tightened her hold on Mai's shoulder signifying that she was close to losing patience, and Mai sighed, because she knew Azula was going to ask. She didn't want to get into another fight on the day of her wedding so she turned the thought in her head. Azula was not going to like the answer to the unasked question no matter how she phrased it.
"You do realize, that the phoenix symbolizes yin," Mai explained as she traced the embossed dragon and phoenix across the candles. Azula was pointedly ignoring her, but Mai knew that Azula might seem to dismiss things out of hand, but she listened. It's what made her a people person. Mai continued on with her startlingly absurd and hilarious revelation, "Your father created a title that was essentially a female representation."
Azula's hands on Mai stopped as she processed that statement. It was Ty Lee that saved all of them from either killing each other or laughing hysterically. "Maybe, he was trying to tell the world that he's gay. He has been gone in that Water Tribe nation for such a looong time."
"Don't be absurd!" Azula snapped out as she gathered Mai's hair again. "If father wanted to tell the world he was interested in men, he would have said it straight out. He is rather straightforward when he wants things. I can't imagine a peasant male holding his attention for long."
Mai had to agree on Azula's assessment. The former Phoenix King took what he wanted when he wants it. He didn't need subtlety. She tried to change the subject; she really did not want to get into a fight during her wedding day, "You're supposed to say lucky words while you're dressing my hair, you know."
Azula shrugged. It was a wonder the princess even knew how to dress hair. She was spoiled that way. "It's the freaking dawn, Mai. I don't wake up earlier than when the sun casts it's light higher than this. My older brother barely visits me because his advisers think I might harm him — more than necessary — and my friend decides to get married behind my back after betraying me. I'm allowed to be grumpy."
Well, at least Azula was taking this rather well.
Ty Lee was already reaching for Mai hands when Mai noticed that she had the black paste that Ty Lee had prepared. She started styling Mai's hands with a light calligraphic brush and henna. Mai hoped her hands didn't end up having ponies. Ty Lee was not known for being grounded any more than Azula was known for being sane. But they were her friends. If she couldn't be with them for this moment in her life, who should she have brought? "Remember to leave a round spot on the right hand."
Ty Lee made agreeing noises as she stuck her tongue out on the side of her mouth while drawing in concentration.
Suki had taken another henna stick and was applying henna to Mai's feet copying the swirling strokes Ty Lee was applying on her hands onto the feet. Although Suki didn't know much about the proceedings, after getting a hang of the applicator, she worked in an intricate design with arcs, some vines and mostly flowers found in Kiyoshi.
"I'm not carrying you on my back," Azula said succinctly as she twisted and twirled more of Mai's hair around her fingers.
"Honestly? You're going to let Toph do it?" Mai deadpanned. At Azula's blank look, Mai sighed. "Toph. Blind Earth Bender girl. Part of the Avatar's gang."
Suki laughed at the description, but didn't comment. It was already a strain to be in Azula's presence as it was. It had been a gamble to let Zuko's friends mingle with Azula, but the war has been over for five years, and it wasn't as much of a hardship as it could have been right after Sozin's comet. Besides, festivities always brought out the good side of people.
"Who the hell said anything about that blind girl?" Azula asked bewildered at the turn the conversation was taking.
"Well you weren't going to do it. I honestly didn't think you'd relegate the duties of most senior sister-in-law to Toph but Zuko offered her if you weren't." Zuko had said that Toph could act as his sister if Azula wouldn't completely go through with tradition. As an heiress, Toph knew most of the traditional wedding arrangements in court.
"She could be the 'good luck woman'," Azula dismissed as she put the final strands of Mai's hair in the elaborate coiffure that shouted 'married' to whoever saw it. "I'm not carrying you anywhere."
It wasn't quite how Mai imagined her Hair Dressing Ritual would go, but it would do.
In the end Toph did carry her, with much grumbling and much grousing. Azula simply laughed in the background. "I swear knife-hand, you're heavier than a stone," Toph said as she placed Mai down inside the main hall. Her mother then presented her with her wedding clothes. The fire red dress, embossed with the phoenix in golds and blacks. The heavy red coat that adorned her shoulders and kept the dress hidden, and a fine red silk veil that covered her face, hanging from a Phoenix crown.
She was really getting married. She gulped in sudden distress. Until the veil, everything had been so normal.
Ty Lee bent in front of her to help her don silk shoes, embossed with chrysanthemums. It didn't go with the Henna that Suki applied, but it would do. Ty Lee stepped back to look at her, and clapped her hands in approval. Mai gulped.
She turned to her parents and bowed.
She moved stiffly as she turned towards the ancestral tablets.
Underneath all the layer of clothing and the veil which completely covered her from head to foot, she felt naked without her knives.
She turned towards the tablet and sat down in wait.
Oh, Agni, Zuko. Hurry up with your rituals. I'd go insane with boredom sitting here waiting. She swallowed slowly. And it dawned on her. She was going to wait without knives.
She groaned in misery.
Zuko hadn't thought that all it would take to bring his family together was a wedding. Because if he'd known, he'd have tried to marry Mai earlier. His father had mostly been... nomadic... because that was the avatar's sentence on him. To live a life without bending. Since Ozai was still a political figure head, but heavily relied on firebending with no other practical skills nor sword fighting ones, Zuko had sent him away with two loyal Fire Nation guards... to roam the world.
Azula, being his sister, was with Mai because tradition required Mai's friends to be closeted with her on the eve before the wedding, and his sister to arrange Mai's hair. He wondered how that was going.
His mother hadn't stepped in the palace nor the capital in ages. She preferred keeping his uncle company in Ba Sing Sei where she could live in relative anonymity and meddle when necessary. And his uncle... his uncle was still the same old... dependable...
Okay, he needed to stop reminiscing or he would cry for his own wedding, and it wouldn't do to look weak in front of Ozai.
The capital was adorned in red, and he was also arrayed in the same Fire Nation colors. He was wearing more elaborate robe stitched with golden dragons, with red shoes and a sash that kept it all together, slinging a silk ball over his shoulder. Red was the color for good luck, and thus it was splashed everywhere they could still splash it on. And that had been quite the difficulty, to find things to splash more of the colors on. He smiled as he knelt in front of the family altar.
Iroh moved Zuko's five pointed crown a bit so that he could place a cap decorated with cypress leaves on Zuko. If Ozai resented the fact that Iroh was capping the Fire Lord instead of his father, he hadn't said anything. "There, Zuko, ready to go and walk to Mai's?" Iroh asked as he laid a hand on Zuko's shoulder reassuringly after he adjusted the cap.
Was there ever a time to get ready for this? Zuko wondered. It wasn't that he didn't want to marry Mai. It was just that it was a change, and change sometimes was a little frightening, no matter if everyone wanted it.
"The girl's house is twenty paces from the palace gates," Ozai snapped, effectively cutting Zuko off from further reverie. "It's not going to be much of a procession, and no one much is going to see him."
Ursa sighed as she tapped Ozai's shoulder with her fan. He flinched and looked away. Zuko hadn't seen his parents in ages, and he didn't quite understand the dynamics between the two of them. "I already told you. The bridal procession will begin at the inner court yard instead of the palace walls. So that more people could see him."
"I don't understand why that's necessary," Ozai groused.
Zuko suspected his father was just being contrary. Or he just wanted to get a rise out of Ursa. But Ozai lurched forward and before Iroh could take the silken sphere that hung from Zuko's sash, he'd grabbed it and placed it on top of the bridal sedan chair. Zuko caught Iroh raising an eyebrow at Ursa, but his mother was hiding a smile beside a fan.
Tom-tom, all seven years old and clumsy had been hanging around in the background, but decided it was now his turn for the rituals. He pulled on Zuko's sleeve to get the Fire Lord's attention. Zuko smiled and knelt down to look at Tom-Tom in the eye. Tom-tom dipped his finger on the red powder on his hands before trying to draw on Zuko's forehead when Mai's uncle pulls him away. "Really, Tom-tom, you're going to mess up the Fire Lord's face, let me do it."
"No, it's all right," Zuko reassured the Warden of Boiling Rock as he stands up. He liked Tom-tom. Mai's brother was usually with his parents in the Ambassador's house set in Ba Sing Sei, so they didn't usually meet, but he indulged Mai's younger brother when he was in the palace. "You promise not to get the powder anywhere but my forehead, right Tom-tom?"
Tom-tom nods his head solemnly and stills as his uncle holds him steady for the Fire Lord's marks. It ended up lopsided, and Ursa had to bring a rag to clean some of it, but it had made Tom-tom smile and give a secret red thumb up to Zuko.
"Okay, that's about it," Zuko mutters to himself as his family and the palanquin bearers followed him towards the gate of the palace's ancestral shrine. When he threw open the doors, he was quite surprised by the number of people who came. People were already cheering and waving. "I wonder how long a fifteen minute walk would take in this."
At his exit off the palace gardens, firebenders had started with their display, fireworks were lit and gongs and drums started playing. It was probably the noisiest weddings he's ever attended and he thanked Agni that he had servants and advisers to plan this, because he didn't think he could have coped with the magnitude of it.
Someone gave him a small push, and he glared to find Sokka and the rest of the gang there, waiting for him somewhat impatiently to move. "Well we're not going to be able to eat the wedding feast if you don't start the procession, sparky!"
He should have known that was the main reason Sokka was getting impatient. "Lay off Sokka, or I'm going to tell Suki that you want to get tied down so badly you'll be begging for marriage by next year." A scared look crept into Sokka's eyes and Zuko smiled as he motioned for the Warden to hand over Tom-tom to him. "Come on, Tom-tom; let's go get your sister."
His friends had waited outside the shrine because the shrine rituals had been mostly for family. Now that he was outside, they were starting to pester him. It was good they had bee barred from the shrine itself, or they might have broken something irreplaceable... like Sozin's urn. The family was wealthy enough that their shrine had an entire little house where the family could gather and where the procession could start. Mai's family shrine was located in their great hall, if he wasn't mistaken.
He stepped out into the sunlight and people cheered, waving banners and streamers and flinging rice. He raised his arm to protect his eyes and held Tom-Tom with his other hand as they began to walk across the normally clear court yard.
"Is that a dancing lion-turtle?" Aang gasped flitting about the processional looking at the attendants with lanterns and banners. Zuko wanted to smack his head.
"No, it's a unicorn!" Zuko called back, but the Avatar had already zipped away, most probably to pester the musicians over something or the other, because some of the tsungi horns were starting to play out of tune.
"Older brother Zuko, could I see the unicorns?" Tom-tom asked as he looked behind them at the lengthening processional.
They hadn't even managed to exit the shrine grounds. "I'll show you when the Avatar is finished bothering it." He could have gone with a palanquin himself, but honestly, even if ordering servants did bring a smile to his face sometimes, it just wasn't him. And it was his choice. Besides, the gaudiness of the ribbons in Mai's chair and all the adornments with the Mirror was already distracting.
They managed to arrive at Mai's doorstep after much irritation with Sokka, and no scrapes from Tom-tom. The seven year old had to be carried half the way though, because the normally fifteen minute trip had taken an hour. As soon as they were visible from Mai's door, a bright song was started its trilling notes conveying welcome. Zuko grinned at Tom-tom before unsheathing his Dao sword and knocking on the wide mahogany arch. He put Tom-tom down as he came face to face with Azula and Ty Lee. Something which he'd not come to terms with when he started thinking about this entire wedding debacle.
"Hello, big brother, time to pay up." Azula held her hand out as Zuko looked at her uncertainly.
There was a large sigh in the background until Ozai managed to come to front and handed Azula a packet of red. Zuko frowned. He'd forgotten that part of the marriage rituals. Azula smiled and handed the packet of money to Ty Lee. Zuko should have known Azula was going to be the negotiator, he just hadn't figured who had assigned his father as counter to her.
"Sorry father, not good enough. Mai is prime flesh, white not even remotely sun burnt like most tropical flowers and is very astute in court." Somehow, Zuko doubted Mai was going to be very happy with the way Azula was describing her. "She's good with her knives and she doesn't whine."
Ozai frowned. Zuko could almost feel his hand grappling with the need to slap against his forehead. Because what good was it to make Ozai chief negotiator when the former Fire Lord didn't even consider him as good enough for anything. "Zuko is loyal, if not loyal to the correct person. And persistent to a fault. Lady Mai could do no better."
Zuko's hand clenched involuntarily once before a strong leathery one held it. He looked up to find his uncle smiling at him. "See, my prince, your father does not always think badly of you." Zuko took deep breaths to try and moderate the burning feeling behind his eyes. He was sure he was going to cry and he wasn't even married yet. He was just negotiating with her friends to get through the door. He hadn't wanted for his father's love for a long time now; it surprised him that when he found remnants of it he could still want it.
Zuko missed the last exchange but Azula finally relented to Ozai's wishes after being given three more money filled packets. Mai's mother came out and looked him over, then started poking and prodding his chest to which Sokka's flabbergasted and outraged replies were fast silenced by either Iroh or Ty Lee's flirting. Zuko knew it was just one of the many steps to try to get into the house and prove himself enough to be able to defend Mai when needed, but he was already eager to see Mai.
Finally, Mai's mother brought out a thin kohl set and began lining his eyes to ward off evil spirits.
"Oh, you're going to be soooo pretty!" Sokka exclaimed as he watched.
"If you don't shut up, I'm going to tell everyone that you tried Suki's dress and liked it!" Zuko hissed, with Mai's mother stroking the last lines of the thin kohl over his eyes.
Mai's mother gave them an indulgent smile then lit a small lamp beside the entrance before re-stamping the red fire mark on his forehead placed by Tom-tom. "Fire Lord, welcome to our house," she intoned motioning the main party inside. She led them to a formal receiving room and served them all sweet longan tea, which Iroh sipped appreciatively and Zuko with the finish of a young firebender freshly out of school — that is, fast and hot.
When she brought out trays of soup with soft boiled eggs, he knew that it was going to be a while before he saw Mai.
"I'm hardly a good luck woman, sunshine," Toph pointed out as they sat in front of the family shrine waiting for the groom's entourage to finally make it to the bride.
Mai was sitting with a half bored look on her face, hands itching to throw an absent knife, but nobody could see that through the veil. Which was doubly irritating and doubly boring. "Well, Azula refused to make you eldest sister-in-law."
"I don't want to be part of that dysfunctional family, thank you," Toph protested. She looked around, as much as a blind girl could anyway.
"Nobody sane would want to be in that family," Suki offered and sat down beside the two of them. She had, for the most part declined going with Azula and Ty Lee when greeting Zuko. She had shrugged it off, because then Mai would have to explain the entire bargaining and the chest prodding, and Mai found that she hadn't wanted to do that. "Of course no one sane falls in love so..."
Mai would have retorted something dry and witty if Toph hadn't stood up and announced, "They're coming,"
What, coming now? Mai thought as she struggled to compose herself, thankful for once of the veil. She wasn't prone to panic, but the thought of impending marriage to that 'dysfunctional family' as Toph put it, was suddenly looming, and she hadn't quite realized that by gaining a husband, she'd also gained his insane sister and hard-to-please father. It's a good thing she wasn't going to live with them. Because in-laws were known for driving wives insane. And she would fit in the family image. Perfect.
And then it didn't matter because Tom-tom was pulling Zuko through the hall entrance to stand before her. He was dressed in the usual reds of weddings and Fire Nation, but amidst all of that bright color was the dragon languidly stretched across his chest and breathing fire across his heart. It rippled across the fabric as he moved creating the illusion that it was flying.
Mai was terribly thankful that the veil hid her sudden gulp and want for water. He had that sheepish, dorky grin plastered across his face. He held his hand out to her. She clasped it in hers. "What took you so long, dork?"
"I couldn't break the soft boiled egg," he admitted as her father poured out sacred water. He looked at Zuko questioningly, before Zuko looked at Mai through the veil, trying to search for her eyes, "I promise to be Mai's purpose in life, to give her meaning. I vow to support her, to kindle her flame so that it would never go out. I commit to both of our actions and our deeds."
The vows resonated in her heart as Zuko repeated it twice more. Her mother and her father approached them and clasped both Mai's hands in Zuko's as a recitation of both their ancestors was done, but Mai wasn't listening to that, because Mai's hands were warm in his and he was smiling for her.
A small push to both of them managed to tell them that the recitation was over and managed to get them moving towards the bridal chair. Suki had taken a parasol and was already shielding them as Toph threw rice grains at them. Aang joined in too, while Sokka, she saw, was still nibbling on one of the dishes pilfered from the welcoming feast.
"I don't see Katara," Mai observed as they walked slowly, because once they reached the chair, they'd be forced to walk separately again. "Did you invite her?"
"Of course I did! Next to Toph, she's practically my sister." Zuko looked around. "She wasn't part of my procession. Was she a part of yours?"
Mai shook her head. But any conversation on the topic was cut short as they arrived at the palanquin that would bear her. She smiled at the mirror, reflecting the light and would 'protect her from evil influence', a lot of the things that were laid on the bridal palanquin were to strain out evil.
Firebenders were starting to bend again, showering sparks on them in arcs as she entered the palanquin. Zuko was holding the curtain up. He grinned at her. "See you in a while, Mai." Then he dropped the curtain leaving her alone with the silk ball and the smattering of grains against the palanquin started again. She sighed. Traditional weddings were such a pain.
She should have told Zuko that they should elope.
There was bending everywhere, so it was hot, and she could hear the fireworks and the cheers, but when the palanquin jolted to a stop, she was glad. Zuko lifted the curtains from the palanquin and helped her down on a red mat that was rolled for the occasion.
She took a deep breath. All the servants of the palace were arranged flanking the sanctum doors. Usually, they would have performed the wedding inside, but because it was the Fire Lord's wedding, most of the formal rites were going to be done on the platform where he announced formal proclamations. The same one where he and Aang announced that they were entering an era of peace and love. Her Fire Lord was a dork.
Katara was there with a jar of water and she bent it out before sending it to circle Zuko, to cleanse him before entering the threshold with her. If they hadn't had a waterbender with them, Ursa would have anointed him with oils as they stepped through the threshold. After she was done, Katara heaved the clay vessel had once contained the water she used to purify Zuko and smashed it. Katara grinned at them and Zuko whispered to Mai, "There she is." Katara waved for them to continue.
Zuko was holding her arm as they walked, and he already bent flame so there was a small wall of fire that separated the platform and them, almost similar to the wall of fire found in the throne room. Mai stopped in front of the threshold, a little worried. "Will that fire burn my dress?"
"You've never asked that of my fire before," Zuko pointed out.
That was because before, she wasn't in front of an audience with the possibility of showing her skin. But she stepped through the fire anyway; as soon as she was close enough the wall had banked and moderated allowing her to pass. Zuko followed her grinning. She rolled her eyes, but it held less satisfaction than when he could see her. She was as free of evil spirits as it was going to get. One of the sages bent flame and cast it around her like a dragon coiling through her before letting go. Finally another one gave her a string of copper coins, which Mai kept as a bracelet.
Ursa, who had been waiting behind the sages, knelt before them with a tray of milk and she washed Mai's feet and then Zuko's, before Katara, ever the handy waterbender, made a motion with her hands that dried their feet. Ursa gave a parting kiss to Zuko before tipping over a small vessel filled with coins.
As soon as they reached the highest and most visible part of the platform, people cheered. Zuko waved dorkily and Mai appeased them with one as well. As soon as they quieted down, Zuko turned her to face him.
"So, ready to get married?"
"I wouldn't have allowed this boredom if I wasn't."
Zuko laughed until finally, he raised her veil. It was red, thin and rather flimsy, but it had hidden her face well. He inhaled sharply, as if it was the first time he'd seen her in ages. Just like the light in his eyes when she'd returned to him after Sozin's Comet. As if he'd waited for this moment to start breathing again.
"Hi," he whispered as he touched his forehead against hers.
She smiled. This was the reason why she was getting married. "Hi."
He pulled away reluctantly as he bent flame into his hands. If she had been a firebender, she would have bent flame into her hands too, instead, she brought her hands over his, his flame playing slightly above her palm as it would if it was on a candle's wick, him cupping her hands.
They both raised their hands slowly, until the flame flared and flickered brightly into the sky, dissipating in a shower of color to blanket all those who gathered to witness the Fire Lord's marriage. To thank the Heaven. He enclosed her hands between his, and lit another flame just on top of their hands again as they slowly knelt down to feel the platform's stone. He sank the flame into the stones until she could feel the heat warming her toes. A flare of power felt by those who knelt along with them. To thank the Earth.
He grinned. "The last time I lit a fire like that, it was with Aang, trying to bring it to the dragons." He pulled her up from the kneeling position and turned both of them to face the general vicinity of Zuko's ancestral shrine before bowing deeply. "This would be the time to worship the Kitchen God."
"We should tell Sokka that one," Mai quipped as they both turned towards the small incense holder that was brought up into the platform for them and lit two sticks. Zuko was already bending a flame large enough for their audience to see in a large ceremonial vase, and the Sages held it and consecrated it for him as Zuko held his hand out for Mai.
She gripped his right hand and smiled as she led him around the Holy Fire. It was hot, the flame was large and the clothes were sticky, but they managed to circle the fire six times. Each circle was a promise, from Zuko to her. Witnessed by Agni alone, these vows were her promises to him. His earlier words were for her family. This was his promise to Mai. It was solemn and it was theirs alone.
At the last round he took the lead from her and then stopped finally where they began circling on the platform. "I will be the Dragon, and you will be my Phoenix. Let me be the Heaven and you the Earth. Let me be the sun, and you its wearer. Let me be the mind and you its spokesman."
Her heart clenched. "Of course." Because there was no doubt. Not about this.
There was cheering and another dorky wave from Zuko before they managed a dignified retreat towards the palace. One more step.
They retreated to the family living room, where everyone was already gathered and Mai sat at a low table where a tea-set was already prepared. Mai poured tea into small cups and added two lotus seeds in each of the cups.
She took the tea tray and offered one to Ursa, which she accepted with a smile and one to both Iroh and Ozai. Iroh had the happy content look that she was accustomed to seeing, and Ozai had the perpetual frown. It didn't matter to her much. She looked at Zuko.
She'd barely served the tea before he'd dragged her out of the room and ran towards the Fire Lord's chambers. "I've missed you, Mai." He said as they half-ran half-skipped through the palace. The servants they met all had silly smiles plastered on their faces.
They managed to get to that large bed without mishap. She didn't want to be the one to remind him this but...
"Hey, sparky, what a LOOOONG wedding!" Sokka said as he stepped through the doors he'd just flung open.
Zuko groaned as he released Mai.
"You forgot they were going to tease us until midnight, weren't you?" Mai said a little exasperated as Zuko flopped on the bed defeated.
"A marriage bed should be sacrosanct!" Zuko complained.
"Big words, hotstuff!" This coming from Toph whose entrance heralded Suki, Katara and Aang.
"Hey... look at the shiny coins! I can read Yue!" Sokka shouted as he picked the Fire Nation marriage coins that Mai had dropped from the floor. He flipped it over to look at the other side in morbid fascination. "WHAT are they DOING in this COIN?"
Mai patted Zuko's knee. "Look on the bright side. At least Azula and Ty Lee are with your family."