The no gossiping was easy. Mai was not really a gossip. Being her mother's daughter had beaten her out of it. Being a friend of Azula sharpened it. She could do without laughing out loud. It was very rare that she laughed anyway. And Zuko was very careful not to make her laugh recently. She didn't look at clashing colors, which was also extremely easy. There was nothing but reds, blacks and golds in the Fire Nation capital. Anything else was banned from the Royal Suites. Because really, orange was such an offensive color, no one brought it near her. She also didn't lose her temper. That was easy, everybody agreed with her. And besides, she wasn't really quick to anger anyway.
It was everything else that was ... difficult.
Mai stared at the poem for the hundredth time, and then rolled the scroll in frustration. She was not going to be useful anytime soon. She was also going to be bored out of her mind if it continues. It was a good thing then, that she was intimately familiar with boredom and all of its aspects.
Of course people banning her from her knives were also irking her a little bit. The sages had forbidden her the knives as soon as they learned she was pregnant. They were supposedly harmful for the baby's spirit. But really. They expected her to paint and sing and read poetry for nine months. They all understood that though she followed tradition, she wasn't happy about the poetry and the painting. Especially not the poetry.
It was a good thing then that she'd learned a few lullabies from her nurse when she was younger. At least she knew songs to sing for the baby. It was a sweet song, reminiscent of birds humming, out to woo their lovers. The melody was light but the pitch was high. Surprisingly enough, it flowed rather well with her voice.
She stopped singing when she heard someone open the door. Since there was neither knock, nor scratch she rightly assumed that it was Zuko. Who was currently standing sheepishly on the shared doorway, hand crooked over his neck. "Why don't you ever sing?"
There was a million ways to answer that. But she guessed he deserved the truth. "I am out of tune."
"But you have a lovely voice," he protested as he approached her sitting on the floor beside her absently greeting his child with a casual touch. He visited her more to talk. The breaks were shorter than when she hadn't been carrying a baby, but they were more frequent. "All the court ladies say that you have a good range, and it's very soothing."
"I am out of tune," Mai insisted, patting his head. He wouldn't argue with her. It was forbidden to argue with pregnant women. She won more arguments now that she was with child than in her entire twenty-three years of living. It was funny. It was also rather boring.
He sighed. "But you'll sing for me?" There was a hopeful note in that voice. She really didn't understand why he'd insist on it. She can sing a tune, but she was rather tone deaf when it came to instruments playing. She can tune her voice to another vocalist, but not to an instrument. It was quite a disappointment to her mother, that. So she didn't understand why he couldn't just listen to his royal musicians. They were there for his enjoyment after all.
"Perhaps. If you're very, very good," she acquiesced. He sighed. She smiled at him indulgently. "Go now, Fire Lord, your ministers await."
"When's the turtle-duck coming?" he asked.
Mai tilted her head to the side. He always asked. "Soon, my lord."
He rose from the floor and kissed her forehead. "I'm happy, Mai."
Because the news of the pregnancy, visitors had flocked to Mai during the past nine months. It was no wonder that Zuko's friends had managed to weasel in a schedule near her due date. And though they were a rather unruly and large group than what she was used to, at least it staved off boredom.
However, since it was a large group, playing pai sho with Suki seemed to be the safest course of action. Aang and Ty Lee were both flitting about the room, though Aang had been dressed in Fire Nation reds, because they hadn't allowed him in the room with orange. Sokka and Katara were both fighting again, although in strained hushed voices, because they didn't want Mai to hear. This was impossible given the fact that they were actually fighting.
Finally, the fight won, Katara moved over to the Pai Sho board to look at Mai. "When are you going to throw a blessingway for you?"
From what Mai understood, a blessingway was a Water Tribe ritual for pregnancy, where the mothers were given gifts. She had managed to learn that much from some of the Water Tribe ambassadors who had visited over the months with similar questions. Mai shook her head and gave her standard answer, "We can't celebrate the birth until it's born. The Fire Nation loses a lot of babies during pregnancies and birth."
"That's strange," Katara said slowly. "We lose a lot of births too, and we usually celebrate one year after the baby is born, but the mothers usually get a blessingway. Do you want me to be present during delivery?"
Mai wondered if there was a polite way to say no to that. Everybody seemed to think that Katara was the wonder physician of the century. Able to cure amnesia, able to heal scars, able to heal mortal wounds, able to blood bend, although she was told that last one was only during the full moon and the strictest of secrets. Personally Mai thought that there were limits to that, and she didn't quite want the first child of the Fire Lord to be an experiment. How many Fire Nation pregnancies has Katara attended anyway? Did she know that Fire Nation babies sometimes did not hold because they were too hot for a mother's womb? Although, it wasn't necessarily bad to have a Water Tribe physician there if things became... complicated.
But there was the small fact that if Katara was going to be there, Aang and Sokka would be there. If Aang and Sokka were there, Suki was going to look at it as an invitation. And if Suki was going to be there, Ty Lee was definitely going to tag along. This would look like an open invitation to the rest of the Avatar's friends. Not to mention offending Azula if she wasn't invited, she may be institutionalized most of the time, but having her out in the open interacting with her family was also part of the therapy. And no, she wasn't happy about everyone seeing her push a watermelon out into the world. The Water Tribe ambassadors also told her that Water Tribe births were attended by everyone. And she didn't want the birth to be attended by everyone. There were certain rituals some close friends could be invited to on the third day though. That one would have to do for everybody.
"Maybe as an adviser and Zuko's close friend, Katara. We have the Imperial Physicians, and they might not look at me kindly if I suddenly decided to bring you in." The Imperial Physicians might interpret the move an insult. They would ask why she brought a Water Tribe girl to attend to her when they were supposed to be competent enough to handle the job. Politics and repercussions there. Zuko and Mai were supposed to make the Fire Nation seem stronger, not look weaker. And they couldn't very well proclaim that their own court trained physicians were inferior to Katara who had virtually no training as a physician and had simply 'picked it up' on the field. "They might think Zuko and I have decided they're inadequate."
"I'm sorry, I didn't think ..." Mai knew that Katara was only trying to help. But there was naiveté there. And Katara always perceived that she knew what was best. Mai had to maneuver around most of those. Katara meant well, but Mai had to think of court politics. Katara wouldn't have to live with the repercussions of whispered words and a sudden lack of saffron soup when she needed it.
"Thank you for the offer, Katara," Mai said, trying to placate the girl. She was Zuko's friend, after all.
Mai tried to think of another topic of conversation when Sokka spared her of it by asking, "Have you thought of names yet?"
Another pained expression flitted through Mai's face. She wanted Zuko here, but he was closeted with advisers. And she was supposed to explain Fire Nation traditions to people who had never been exposed to Fire nation traditions. And Ty Lee was no help.
"Zuko and Mai will give the baby a milk name first. But while she's pregnant, they're going to refer to the baby as animal, so that the spirits won't try to kidnap the baby," Toph explained. Mai was extremely thankful that Fire Nation and Earth Nation cultures were similar. Because she honestly could not teach the intricacies of culture to Zuko's friends all the time while trying to think of ways not to offend. "I think they've settled on turtle-duck."
"And the Fire Sages want to read it's fortune," Mai said as she focused back on the Pai Sho board. Suki already had the amused look that she doled out when she knew Mai was getting strangled by the attention from the others. Of all of Zuko's friends, Suki had understood her the most, probably because they were the same age and had the shared experience of having dweebs for partners. "If they find that it's lacking an element, we're going to have to incorporate it in the name."
"Unless it's water," Toph piped up, with that maniacal grin pointing towards Katara and Sokka. "It's considered a bad omen in Fire Nation to have too much water."
Mai hadn't planned on informing the Water Tribe of that little fact, but Toph always wanted to draw out things that irritated other people the most. Katara bristled. Sokka opened and closed his mouth like a fish. They looked like they wanted to protest, but there was little protest that could be done with regard to traditions. And Mai honestly didn't think there was a point to changing that particular tradition. Water was the polar opposite of fire, it wasn't good for a Fire Nation child to have too much water. What did they expect, a water bender on the Fire Nation's throne?
"You're not focusing on the game," Suki pointed out as she made another move.
Mai shrugged. Pregnancy lets her get away with a lot of things, even not concentrating on a pai sho game with a friend. She made another move.
Entertaining visitors was always better than reading poems, singing songs and drawing birds and flowers any day.
Despite uncomfortable questions.
Zuko came in late to his bedroom, and Mai was already lying on her side, reading a long scroll. She smiled at him when he entered carrying the large basket of green mangoes. He scowled at the smile as he laid it down on the desk.
"I had to bribe several servants to get me these mangoes," he informed her, shrugging out of his formal robes and into one that he used while he slept. "If anyone finds out the palace is going to be in an uproar."
He picked a knife that had been packed along with the basket and one of the mangoes up. The mangoes were already washed by the servants, so he peeled it slowly and then cut it in small rectangular pieces under Mai's watchful gaze. Spooning some of the small shrimp paste and setting it into the plate, he put aside the peels and handed Mai the plate while carefully pointing the knife he held with his other hand away from her. "If that turtle-duck ends up having a sour disposition——"
"Your mother ate nothing but sweets when you and Azula were born," Mai informed him pointedly as she snatched the plate away from him and dipped the fruit into the paste. She hummed with appreciation and ground the chili more into the shrimp paste. "Look how that turned out."
"But shrimp paste Mai?" he asked incredulously, watching her from the corner of his eye as he burned the incriminating evidence and wiped the knife clean to be picked up by another servant in the morning. "It's disgusting. And it smells bad. You said so yourself!"
"It's salty and goes well with the mangoes," she pointed out. She bit into another one of the sticks and groaned in appreciation. The only other reason he'd promised he'd sneak more mangoes for her was because of the sounds she was making. It was positively obscene. That and she really, really wanted them. And what Mai wants, he was only too glad to give in. "Are you cleaning the knives or are you just whining?"
"I don't even understand why I'm slicing and peeling the mangoes, you're handier with the knives than I am," Zuko protested as he sat down beside her snatching one of the slivers of fruit from her plate. She glared at him but let him get away with his price. He made a face when he bit into the stick. Yes, it was still extremely sour. And it wasn't mashed. There went two traditions down the drain. It's also light colored so the baby will be fair-skinned.
"Pregnant women aren't allowed any knives on their beds because it would harm the baby's spirit," she quoted as she handed him the plate that she'd just finished.
He sighed but stood and placed the tray in the bathing area, pouring water over it. He was never going to be able to sleep if the smell was going to be persistently in the room. He went back beside her and slid back into the bed. "You remember tradition well enough."
"When it suits me," Mai agreed. She snuggled next to him. "You're just grumpy we're not allowed to do more than snuggle."
"I know carrying is going to be difficult," he whispered. The position was rather awkward due to Mai's condition, but they managed to maneuver around it. "My mother had a difficult time with me, and your mother miscarried more than enough between you and Tom-tom. The physicians were right to uphold tradition."
"Don't worry about it, Zuko," Mai reassured him gently. "I'll be fine."
"You smell like shrimp paste." He didn't even argue the fact that it was hot, and that two bodies this close in summer wasn't really all that practical.
"Are you going to banish me from your bed?" she teased.
He looked at her lying on her side, staring up at him. "No."
"Because the Fire Lady's bed hasn't been aired in ages," Mai reminded him. He let her have the last word, because she was pregnant. He pulled her closer. "Are my knives under the bed?"
Though she had been forbidden the knives, the common belief was putting them under the bed would ward off bad spirits. Although Zuko knew that Mai asked because she felt safer if her knives were close to her regardless of tradition. He nodded.
She closed her eyes. "Soon, Zuko, soon."
When Uncle Iroh visited, it was usually with Queen Mother Ursa in tow, and it was usually to serve and prepare tea. They both fussed around her, but she reassured them both that she was fine, and that she was thankful for their visits.
They both worried like grandparents and both tried to keep her bare work to a minimum. Iroh served her a cup of tea, which sometimes uncomfortable for Mai. Being a former crown prince, she still regarded Iroh as one who had a higher status than herself, even after she became the Fire Lady. And since he was serving her tea, it announced to the room that he valued her, or that her status was higher than his.
He waved away her concerns though as he sat in front of her. "Has the ginger tea helped with your nausea?"
Mai nodded in thanks. Although she hasn't had the urge to vomit in months, she didn't have the heart to send away the Jasmine Dragon tea packets that Iroh kept sending throughout the pregnancy. She kept drinking them because there were only a few types of tea that was allowed during her condition anyway. "Thank you for the thought, Uncle."
"Your mother is very exited, I've brought some of the tsue shen clothes for you that she made." Ursa pushed forward a package. It was a package meant to hasten the delivery. Mai opened the neatly wrapped pack and put away the white cloth that she would wrap the new baby with, and fingered the clothes that her mother stitched for her.
"Thank you, mother-in-law," Mai murmured, she would have used Ursa's higher titles, but Ursa always brushed them off. Mai's own mother visited but her time wasn't as free as Ursa and Iroh due to their post as ambassadors in the Earth Kingdom. Mai was sure that her mother would definitely come three days after the baby was born to bring all the baby clothes and equipment though. She had already expressed that she has bought the baby's entire layette and wanted to give it to Mai, as her mother has done for her during Mai's own birth.
Pushing the package aside, Mai took a sip of the purpleberry tea that Uncle Iroh made. He had vowed to her that it was very nutritious and that it helped make more milk for the baby and would help her during delivery. He has forbidden her drink of Spiced Tea though, saying that it might cause bleeding.
All of the forbidden things were making her head spin. She knew some of them, the Fire Nation had been steeped in tradition and she was exposed to all of these superstitions since she was young, but there were a couple of things that just suddenly surprised her. Like her attendants adamantly disallowing her to face south or east during bathing, which she still couldn't get a straight answer for. Or the sheer amount of tigers that she had to stitch into clothes because tigers were the guardian spirits of young boys. Tom-tom didn't have any tigers in his clothes.
"The due date must be soon," Iroh pointed out as he watched her. "You will send a dragon-hawk to us when the turtle-duck arrives?"
Mai smiled at Iroh's fretting. Zuko would never allow Iroh and Ursa to be uninformed about their grandchildren. He had even informed Ozai and Azula, because they were family, regardless of estrangement. "He'll probably send rice wine by courier, uncle."
"You're fine, daughter-in-law, everything is well?" Ursa asked.
Mai nodded, and gave Ursa a reassuring smile. "The turtle-duck is coming soon."
"I'm very happy for you and Zuko, Mai," Iroh said as he took a sip of his own tea.
Mai gave both of them a smile.
The fact that he couldn't find Mai didn't worry him at first. The palace was large, and Mai had walked in its shadows since she was six. She liked living in between the light and the dark, and she had skillfully made an art of fading into the background when necessary.
Of course going through their rooms, the parlor, the kitchens, the bathing chambers in quick succession with no evidence of what you were seeking would tend to alarm anyone. The fact that there were no servants loitering around in the royal wing was also a rather telling sign that something had gone drastically wrong.
He was, just about to summon the royal guard, when a servant carrying a pail of water darted out of nowhere, almost barreling through him. The servant was more irritated than contrite that she was stopped by Zuko's hand. The water sloshed in the bucket, but none of the drops fell on the floor. "I have to get this to the Infirmary."
Zuko let go of the servant, who, with barely a brush of her clothes, carried the bucket with utmost haste to the direction of the infirmary, without giving Zuko a single glance, nor apology. She probably hadn't even registered the fact that it was the Fire Lord who'd stopped her, because she was so intent on bringing that water to its destination.
He started walking briskly after the girl, and then ran, belatedly realizing that the Fire Lord's robe, with all of its flowing bolts of cloth, was not made for running. He instinctively sought the infirmary, although his brain hadn't connected yet, why he was running. He stopped slightly before the servant entered the wide doors.
He took a deep breath and flung the double doors open. He took in the scene slowly. Mai was on the bed, sweating. There were three Imperial physicians there. There was a baby crying. The servant poured water onto a dish and someone bent fire to boil it before wiping the baby clean with cloth dipped in the hot water.
"You're late," Mai whispered from the bed, she was already tucked into a large bed, covered completely.
"You didn't call me," he pointed out, slightly annoyed that the servants had been in the infirmary, and he hadn't been informed.
"I didn't realize it was time until I was in too much pain to inform you," Mai answered sleepily holding out her hand towards him. He moved forward, but was interrupted by a physician who laid a newborn on his arms.
"It's a boy, Fire Lord," the physician informed him. "The Fire Sages are reading his fortune as we speak."
Zuko cradled the little creature in his arms, so very light and freshly wiped clean. "Whose idea was it to forget about me?"
"Everyone thought that the Fire Nation's concerns were more important than your wife."
"To the Fire Lord, there is nothing more important than the Fire Nation." There was a frown that lingered in his face as he traced a fingertip over the baby's eyebrow and puckered lip. The baby had stopped, and had settled peacefully to sleep, the earlier bouts of wails apparently had exhausted him. Zuko brought his eyes up to look at a sleepy Mai, "But to Zuko, I think, the fire of his heart would also be of great value."
He leaned closer to her, and a servant dragged a chair towards the bed before the room emptied out. "I'm sorry, Zuko. Are you truly disappointed?" Mai asked softly.
"No, Mai, of course not," he whispered as he laid the baby beside her, watching them both rest. She laid a gentle hand on the baby, smoothing stray tufts of hair. "I would have been locked out of the room until the birth anyway, and it would only have worried me."
"I'll remember next time," Mai mumbled, and then, losing the battle to exhaustion, fell asleep with her hand on the smooth blanket that they had swaddled the young prince in.
Zuko smiled as he watched them. Well, he could have at least been informed, but he truly had been with ministers closeted with arguments that could simply not be interrupted. It was sometimes a strain to be with people who thought that any amount of weakness was to be pounced on. Next time Mai gave birth, he was going to give himself a month of break with the ministers and just do paperwork, instead of the week he had given himself this time. The Imperial physicians had been off of their predictions by at least two weeks.
As he looked at them, he noticed the wine neatly stacked beside Mai's bed and red eggs. He winced as he brought one wine bottle on his lap and another ribbon, tying it loosely around the neck. This wine bottle would go to Mai's parents, the ribbon was to inform them that the baby was a boy. He enclosed a red envelope and counted money to send along with the wine. He then brought the red eggs and distributed them along the baskets carefully counting that they were odd. If he sent one that was even, they'd think that the first child was a girl.
He wondered if he was supposed to get the fruit now. But decided that could wait.
He looked at Mai and their child again and smiled.
They had a son now. His titles now included father.
It might just be the biggest challenge in his life yet.
He leaned closer, whispering to the infant, "I'm sorry I wasn't here earlier. I promise I'll try harder next time. Besides, we still have to settle on a name."
He might have imagined it, but the baby's head turned towards his voice.
Mai threw her hand over her eyes as she saw Azula, Ty Lee, Suki and Toph come through the doors of the Infirmary chambers. She didn't understand who in the world had decided that the combination of those four would be wonderful for the first bathing ceremony of the crown prince. Maybe they had remembered the wedding and set out formal invitations. Or maybe, they'd been the only ones who knew the significance of the red eggs Zuko had sent with messengers. Li and Lo were also both present and was sitting on either side of Mai surrounded by the usual symbolisms needed in a bathing ceremony.
"Happy to see us, Mai?" Azula asked as she fingered the mirror that was one of the symbols on Mai's bed.
"Yes, yes," Mai said half-heartedly as she slowly brought her sleeve down and looked at all of them balefully. Someday, she was going to start new traditions. She was not going to have the next bathing ceremony with awkwardness and a mixed group of relatives and friends. Even officiating Fire Nation battle meetings were less stressful than meeting her friends.
Toph had gone over to the crib and lifted the baby out holding him above her head. Ty Lee had also crowded around Toph and was cooing around the baby. "Wow, knife-hand," Toph said as she observed the baby through her hands. "He's really small."
Which Mai had been thankful for. If he had been any larger, she would probably have died of excruciating pain. As he was, he'd already been painful. "He'll grow into his skin."
Suki, the most practical of all those invited, was testing the waters of the small wooden tub that had been prepared by the servants on her inner wrist. She swirled the fragrant water freeing some of the smell of the locust branches and artemis plants which had been boiled with it in preparation. "In our village when we want to bathe the baby we don't usually have this much... ceremony."
Azula laughed. "Understandable, peasant."
Suki bristled and the Kiyoshi Warrior and the former Fire Lord stared each other down. Mai scrubbed her face with her right hand and resisted the groan. It was too early in the day for this. "It's dreadfully boring, if you want you could find Zuko and torture him a bit." Seeming perpetually bored had its uses, and it was an easy excuse. She didn't care whether it was Azula or Suki who responded to the statement, as long as it broke the tension.
"Zuzu is not enough of a girl to be in the ceremonies, Mai," Azula reprimanded.
Suki weighed her response before saying, "No, I'd rather be educated." There was a half formed challenge there, but Suki was smart enough not to provoke Azula into full rage. She had enough respect for Mai not to start a fight with another guest.
Li and Lo sensed the tension and motioned for Ty Lee to bring the crown prince towards Mai. She promptly urged Toph towards Mai who had here hands out for the prince. Mai placed a soft kiss on the prince's forehead. She tried to move without upsetting the arrangement of the mirror, onion, comb, padlock and weights around them. The prince was quiet today, which she was grateful for, he had certainly been loud enough the entire night wanting milk.
Lo tied red silk around the wooden tub and fastened a string of loose coins around it before pushing the tub towards Mai. Mai lowered the baby and cupped water with her right hand to bathe his head, the sleeping prince suddenly startled and began earnestly crying at the foreign feeling of water. "Hush, my prince, it's going to be all right." The baby continued to cry as she washed his head with the warm water, and she was grateful when Lo handed her a white terry cloth to dry his head.
She dried him and then unswaddled him to rest him in the water, just enough to cover his body while she was propping him up. Lo started burning an incense offering to the god and goddesses of the beds while Li urged Azula to start placing gifts. Azula sighed in resignation and measured a spoonful from the cool water in a pitcher then tipped it into the water. She had brought a red egg to add to the water and gave a small silver as a gift for the baby.
The princess, having finished her duties stepped back and watched as the other guests repeated and mimicked the process. Li kept the small padlock for use on the baby's first month of birth, when Mai was finally allowed to leave the birthing chamber. The baby's cries had softened already, tired from being yanked from air to water to air again.
Mai pulled him from the tub and dried him thoroughly She dressed him in the clothes her mother had made for him and then cradled him in his arms.
"You're not going to use a wet nurse, are you?" Azula asked in mild reproach.
Mai thought Azula should stop asking questions if the answers were going to bother her. "Probably to change the diapers and such, we don't want to shock the court too much." That and who in their right minds wanted to change diapers when someone could do it for you?
Toph snorted, knowing the reason why Mai and Zuko were getting a nurse in the first place. Mai just tried to soothe the baby, lifting him up on her shoulder and tapping a soothing rhythm on his back. "How domestic of you, Mai," Azula said.
Mai thought she was furthest from 'domestic' as one could get. They had servants, and she wasn't above using then frequently. She had grown up as a noblewoman after all. They were her creature comforts. But perhaps the rearing of the child was a bit more domestic than previous wives of Fire Lords had employed.
"The Water Tribe people are going to be so annoyed they couldn't make it," Toph said as she popped one of the snacks that the servants offered while they cleaned the bath waters and Li and Lo took the ritual symbols for the baby's first month. Toph had a point.
Mai made a mental note to remind Zuko the next time they had a baby that the Water Tribe didn't understand their traditions and would require a formal invitation to all the ceremonies instead of the implied one when he'd sent them the red eggs. The mere fact that the Water Tribe were the only ones who didn't send return gifts had been clue enough that they hadn't understood the gift to them.
"The first month celebration is the biggest anyway, we'll party all night!" Ty Lee announced as she cooed and tried to make funny faces at the baby. Mai didn't have the heart to tell her that the baby probably couldn't see her yet.
"Nooo, it has to be the first hundred days," Toph protested, naming her favorite.
"But it can't compare to his first birthday, the naming ceremony." Azula offered half heartedly, crossing her arms over her chest. "I chose the Fire Lord's crown in the basket of toys."
Suki and Toph both snorted at that. The toys that a child chooses on the first birthday usually portrayed a child's destiny. It was similar enough to Aang's story of how he was named Avatar. Azula probably picked the crown because it was shiny and it was easily within her reach on her grandfather's head.
"What?" Azula asked, incredulous.
Mai sighed. Really, people should have known better than to put these four together.
Mai watched Zuko as he awkwardly held the baby on his shoulder. It was their first and he was still getting used to the little tyke burping up milk in the least expected of times and crying in the middle of the night. But he was good with him, awkwardness and all. He was patient and he doted on the child telling him grand stories that were steeped in myth, legend and a lot of Fire Nation tradition.
He was patient with a lot of the traditions. He had personally gone down to search for a peach tree branch, a difficult endeavor in their largely tropical nation, which he had whittled into arrows and lovingly arranged near the crib to ward away demons. He wore a red charm placed just on the inside of his formal silk robes, to misdirect evil spirits from the child to him. He was game about most of the things the Fire Sages told them to do.
There were, of course, some exceptions. She was in the sitting month, and had she been home, she would have been closeted in the birthing chambers for an entire month without seeing Zuko. The Fire Lord didn't take to that part of tradition very well and had snarled, snarled at the Fire Sages while telling them that if they expected him to stay away from his son and his wife, they might as well start ruling the nation in his stead. They broke tradition for him. They had installed her in the Fire Lady's chambers instead of the Fire Lord's as a compromise.
Secretly, Mai was happy Zuko came. Taking care of the baby was not a hardship, especially since it was the only think expected of her during the sitting month. But she would have missed him terribly, and it would have delayed him getting to know their son and his heir. It was a good enough way to get much deserved rest though, and she didn't complain that most of her other duties were put aside for the month.
"I think he's falling asleep," Zuko informed her softly as he sat beside her on the bed, nudging her to move over.
"He's been asleep since you settled him on your shoulder," Mai told him fondly, brushing tendrils of hair from Zuko's forehead. Rumpled and without the topknot, Zuko's hair was extremely messy. "I bet you're disappointed they didn't closet me away in your suites."
"It's fine, the Fire Lady's suites has less clutter and room for the cradle," he whispered as he transferred the baby from his shoulder to his arm to cradle him. He inhaled deeply, as if he still couldn't believe that he'd made a life, then looked at her. "It has a smaller bed though, we're going to end up suffocating the turtle-duck if we let him sleep between us."
She smothered a laugh. Then leaned on his shoulder to look at their child, the squalling had been enough to wake any house had they been living in close quarters. She still couldn't understand how such small lungs could produce such a loud sound. "What did the Fire Sages say about the eight characters that he was born under? We can't keep calling him turtle-duck forever."
Zuko grinned at her as he traced the tip of his fingertip on the child's small fingers. There was a small bell on the baby's wrist ringing lightly when moved, more wards against evil. "It's all good Mai, we can name him anything we like."
"We should keep the royal 'Z'," Mai pondered out loud, she scrunched her nose. "I don't think we should use a generational name."
Zuko agreed, though he could have used a generational name to honor Roku's lineage in their family, it wouldn't have been proper to announce it with the new rule. They were forging new bonds, breaking old ones. Besides, if he was going to honor anyone it should have been his uncle Iroh or maybe his cousin Lu Ten. His finger rubbed the middle of the baby's forehead. "He looks like he's thinking of something, even when he's asleep."
"Shen?" Mai murmured, a name which meant deep thinker but also implied that the baby was deeply spiritual. They still needed a 'Z' sound to add to the name. "Zhaoshen? Zushen? Shenzu?"
"Zu? Upright?" Zuko repeated the name and hummed in approval. "It sounds similar to Xu."
Xu. Brilliant rising sun. Oh, yes, they could write his name that way after he finishes school, and the 'Z' sound was still there to warrant it to be a royal name. "Perfect, Zuko, perfect. Although maybe the Fire Sages will have an apoplexy when they hear we've settled on a name before his first year."
"We'll keep it our little secret," Zuko whispered, then he kissed Mai on the forehead, before he kissed the baby on his cheek. "Welcome to the world, Prince Shenzu."
The baby pursed its lip in sleep. Mai watched them both and realized that Zuko's welcome wasn't quite perfect. "No, my lord." Zuko looked at her in askance. She corrected him lightly, "Welcome home."