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Bitter medicine

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Even though it had already been over two years since Zuko became the Fire Lord, there were still people in both his as well as the other nations who didn’t trust him or the current Fire Nation so it was important to strengthen their relations with the other nations. And this up-coming summit hosted by the Fire Nation was a great way to show their hospitality so Zuko worked hard to make a good impression. The guest would arrive the next day and there was still lots of work to be done and checked on so Zuko had spend the day going around the castle, making sure everything was in order.

   “Sir, we have performed a complete background check on all tomorrow’s performers, waitresses, chefs, body guards and the other personnel and everything seems to be in order. We have the reports delivered to your study,” military officer told Zuko.

   “Excellent, I go through them later tod-” Zuko told but the sentence got unfinished. He gasped air few times and placed his wrist under his nose. “H’KSHK! Hhhg-ugh-H’KSH!”

  “Bless you, sir,” the officer said.

   “Thank you. I’ll re-H’KSH!” Zuko answered sneezing.  He had tried to retain formality but the ungraceful sneezes were too sudden to be stopped.

   “Sir, did you perhaps catch a cold?” the officer asked.

   Zuko sniffled. “I hope not. I can’t get sick now,” he told, more to himself than to the military officer.

  

It was almost midnight before Zuko got all his work done. He collapsed to his bed and fell asleep almost immediately. The next morning, he was woken up early to get ready to welcome the guests. 

    “Zuko, you don’t look so good,” Mai told when she saw her boyfriend.

   Zuko didn’t feel so good either.  His nose was runny and his throat was scratchy. Zuko coughed few times before saying: “I’m okay.”

   “Don’t lie to me,” Mai told angrily.

   “I have to be okay. The first guests will arrive within an hour,” Zuko replied tiredly. He placed his left hand’s index and middle fingers under his nose, his breath hitching. ”IKSKH!Hhg’GSH!”

   “I think you should see a doctor before that,” Mai told and tried to touch Zuko’s cheek, but he brushed her hand away.

   “No, it’s fine. It’s just a cold,” Zuko told sniffling.

   Mai sighed. “Why do you always have to be this stubborn?”

   Zuko didn’t bother to answer.

 

The first guests had arrived and Zuko greeted them as they entered the palace. From there, the guests’ luggage was carried to their rooms while the guests were served tea and snacks in the garden. Zuko tried his best not to cough or sneeze around the guests, but the times he couldn’t help it, he covered his mouth with his sleeve. His bodyguards probably had already realized that he was sick since they gave him concerned looks but didn’t say a word.

   The reception lasted for two hours but it felt like forever. The first day of the summit was only ceremonial, the second day was when the actual meeting took place. As the host, Zuko had to keep his guests entertained and mingle with them but he would have preferred just stay in his room, alone.

    Zuko entered the garden. He held a welcome speech and then the guest were taken to the great hall, where several Fire Nation performers showed off their skills. Zuko started nodding off during these performances.  He got startled when Mai gently nudged him awake. After the performances, the guest were served a luxurious dinner.

   Zuko wasn’t really hungry but he thought it would look bad if the host didn’t eat the food he was serving to his guests. He managed to eat some appetizers and soup but when the first main dish was placed in front of him, he kept staring at the roasted chicken. He took a piece of chicken meat on his chopsticks. His hand was shaking. Zuko sighed and put his chopsticks down.  

   When the waitress took his dish away and tried to offer Zuko the next one, Zuko told her just bring him some tea. Zuko waited patiently until the dinner ended. The next activity was the tour of the castle, city and the Royal Tombs.  But before that, there was almost an hour-long break. And Zuko knew how to spend that.

   Zuko walked to his bedroom and crashed on his bed still fully in his Fire Lord attire. He needed just a small nap before getting back to entertaining his guests. But as soon as he closed his eyes, he fell asleep.

 

Since Zuko had suddenly vanished, the guests had taken interest on Mai and she had to politely keep them company. But when the time for the tour to begin was getting closer and Zuko was nowhere to be found, Mai thought maybe she should go look for him. Since Zuko hadn’t been feeling well, he was most likely in his room.

   Mai headed to Zuko’s bedroom. She had been right: Zuko was lying on his back, over the blanket, still fully dressed. His breathing was unusually stertorous. Mai sat down on the bed and gently touched Zuko’s cheek. He was burning up.

   Mai tried to take Zuko’s clothes off without waking him up. Which was a lot easier than it should have been. Zuko didn’t wake up even when Mai lifted his upper body to get him in to a sitting position. After taking off his clothes, Mai dressed him in his night clothes and put him under the blanket. Then she went back to the area with the guests.

   “You should start the tour. Fire Lord Zuko won’t be joining in,” Mai told to the tour guide group. 

   “What? But shouldn’t he-” one of the guides started.

   “He is in no condition to move around right now. Just proceed as planned,” Mai told. Next, she asked some servants to go get some cold water and towels for Zuko and contact the doctor. After this, she went back to Zuko’s room.

   Zuko’s sleep seemed restless but he still didn’t wake up. Mai sat on his bedside, tapping his face with a damp, cold towel.  It didn’t long for the doctor arrive.

    “We need to wake him up for the checkup,” the doctor told, taking out his medical equipment.

    Mai tried to shake Zuko awake. “Zuko, wake up.”

    Zuko opened his eyes but soon closed them again. Mai kept shaking him and telling him to wake up. Finally he told: “Few more minutes…”

   “You can sleep all you want after the doctor has examined you. Just try to stay awake for a little while now,” Mai told and helped Zuko to sit up.

   The doctor did a thorough examination on Zuko who started slowly to become more awake and aware of the situation.

   “Wait… How long have I been sleeping…?” Zuko asked.

   “About two hours,” Mai replied. “Don’t worry about the guests, they are on the tour now. Everything will proceed according our plan so you can stay in bed and rest.“

   “People will think I’m a bad host if I don’t-cough-a-attend-cough,” Zuko argued, ending up having a coughing fit.

   The doctor had finished his examination. “It seems to be just a really bad case of cold, aggravated by exhaustion. I can prescribe medicine for it but the only way to prevent the cold getting worse is bed rest.  ”

  Zuko was indeed exhausted but he thought that he might still be able to bear it and carry on with the summit.  “If it’s just a cold then-”

   “It might be a cold now but it might develop into something like pneumonia if you keep straining yourself,” the doctor stated sternly.

   “But people will think that I’m just being rude and avoiding my responsibilities if I stay here resting,” Zuko argued.

   “Zuko, I’m sure people will understand if we tell them you’ve fallen ill. Most of them probably already figured out you’re sick anyways,” Mai said.

   “I… Fine. I’ll rest today but I have to attend to tomorrow’s meeting,” Zuko told and lied down.

   The doctor left to get the medicine. Mai thought she should inform people about Zuko’s illness. She asked some servants to keep eye on Zuko while she was gone.

 

Next time Zuko woke up, Mai was back. She had waked him up to take his medicine.  Zuko swallowed the nasty liquid and drank some water to flush it down. He was soon asleep again, but later, he woke up again. This time, no-one had waked him up. Zuko slowly stood up.

   “Where are you going?” Mai asked.

   “Toilet,” Zuko told. His head was spinning and aching a little. When he came back from the toilet, he crashed the bed and curled up.  He sneezed twice and managed to get his bed sheets snotty. Mai handed him a fabric tissue. Zuko blew his nose and tried to wipe the bed sheets clean.

   “Are you hungry?” Mai asked and gently stroke Zuko’s hair.

   “Do I look like I’m hungry?” Zuko mumbled disgruntled. After a short silence he told: “Sorry,” and crawled on Mai’s lap, hugging her waist.

   “You didn’t really eat much at lunch and the dinnertime has already passed,” Mai told.

  “Ugh… Fine, I’ll eat something….” Zuko growled.

  “I’ll ask the chef make you something, I’ll be back soon,” Mai told and kissed Zuko on his forehead.

   Zuko lied in his bed, staring at the roof. He was a bit angry at himself, falling ill the worst possible time. It was just his luck. The world was probably punishing him for all the bad things he had done in the past.  And he was feeling horrible. He kept swallowing the mucus down and every time he did, his throat twinged. His nose had the same burning feeling as getting water up his nose and he had a slight headache. Overall, he felt weak and miserable.

    Mai returned, carrying a pot of tea and two cups on a tray. The food would take some time to be prepared.  She poured the tea in cups and then handed one cup to Zuko.

   Zuko drank the tea. It was spicy and bitter. Zuko coughed few times. “What… Is this…?” he asked.

  “Ginger-lemon tea. It should help with your cold,” Mai told, calmly drinking the tea.

  Zuko kept drinking the tea and it indeed had some effect. The running of his nose got worse and he started coughing the mucus up. “This.. Is helping the cold… Not me,” Zuko told, holding tissue under his nose.

   “It’s only temporary, you soon feel better,” Mai told.

   She was right. After blowing his nose few times, he could breathe smoothly through both of his nostrils. His headache was gone and even his throat felt a bit better. Zuko heard someone knocking the door. Soon a servant came in, carrying a food tray. It was placed on a table next to Zuko’s bed.

   There were multiple small bowls on the tray. One of them contained smooth vegetable soup, other one had some rice porridge topped with leek and third one contained some kind of fruit salad consisting thinly sliced apples, bananas and strawberries and the dessert was coconut milk tapioca pudding with some mango sauce on.

   “This looks something you would feed a small kid…” Zuko mumbled slightly offended, but began to eat. There was too much food. If he had been healthy, he would’ve been able to finish it all with no problem but now he managed to eat about half of it, mostly the dessert and fruits. After eating, he lied back down.

   Mai touched Zuko’s forehead. He was still feverish. Mai took the cold, wet towel out of the basin, wringed the excess water off and placed the towel on Zuko’s forehead. Zuko reached his hand out for Mai’s and Mai took his hand. After lying still a while, Zuko fell asleep again.

It was the morning of the meeting. Zuko woke up early. His nose was congested again. He tiredly reached out for a tissue. Zuko blew his nose and lied back down. But after a while, he got up and started to carry out his morning routines as he would normally do.

   Mai arrived to Zuko’s room and saw him dressed up in his Fire Lord attire and knew he was planning to attend the meeting. “Are you feeling better now?” she asked.

   “Yes,” Zuko told with a hoarse voice. It wasn’t exactly a lie. He did feel a bit better than yesterday but he wouldn’t go as far as saying he was feeling well. But he would be able to attend the meeting.

    Mai could tell Zuko was still sick. “Did you take your medicine yet?” Mai asked.  

   “No,” Zuko told and coughed a little.

   Mai took the bottle and poured the medicine on a spoon, then held the spoon in front of Zuko’s mouth. Zuko seemed hesitant for a moment but opened his mouth and allowed the spoon to enter his mouth. After swallowing the medicine, he made a sour face and quickly grabbed a cup of water.

   Zuko was a bit of nervous to attend the breakfast after skipping half of yesterday’s festivities. He sure knew most of the foreign leaders and diplomats beforehand but some of them still were jaundiced towards him. When he arrived to the breakfast, people kept staring at him but no-one said anything. Zuko sat down without saying a word either.

   Zuko had better appetite than yesterday but his throat was still hurting and made swallowing hard. No matter how well he tried to chew his food, it still hurt to swallow. His nose was tingling and he tried his best not to sneeze while his mouth was full of food, ending up quickly and painfully swallowing the food in his mouth just in time not to spit it out when sneezing uncontrollably five times.  He tried to get back eating but dropped his chopsticks when he suddenly sneezed again.

   Zuko sniffed and took out a tissue to blow his nose. Good thing the guests were talking with each other so the sound of multiple ongoing conversations prevented people paying too much of attention to him, though Zuko could feel multiple eyes on him. Some of them being worried glances, some of them disgusted glares.

    After the breakfast, they headed to the meeting room and the actual meeting began. Zuko tried to stifle his coughs not to interrupt the person currently speaking. Whenever he felt his nose burning he pinched his nostrils together, trying to avoid sneezing. At first he was able to follow the conversation but the longer the meeting went on, the harder it got to focus on. Zuko was starting to get tired and almost nodded off. Then he got asked something.

   “Huh, w-what…? Um, can you.. .Repeat the question…?” Zuko stuttered groggily. His voice was cracking.

   The Fire Nation minister sighed. “Firelord Zuko, I asked if we should have a break,” he told.

   “Oh… Y-yes, let’s take a break,” Zuko replied.

   The guests were served tea and sweets in the garden. Zuko was sitting on a bench next to a wall, a bit further away from the guests. Mai came to him, offering a cup of tea and slice of pie.

   “So… How are you holding up, is the meeting going well?” Mai asked.

   Zuko held the teacup with both of his hands, without drinking it. “I guess. I don’t know what we’re currently talking about though,” he replied.

   “Is there any point of you being in that conference if you can’t even pay attention to what people are talking about?”`Mai asked.

   “I don’t know. I think I should be present…” Zuko told.

   Mai placed back of her hand on Zuko’s cheek. “You’re burning up again,” she told.

   Zuko placed the teacup on the ground and lied down on Mai’s lap. “I know… Sitting there listening old people talk about politics for two and half hour straight would make anyone sick,” Zuko mumbled.

   Mai stroke his hair. She knew it would be futile to tell Zuko to just skip the meeting and go to rest. She knew Zuko would somehow manage to get through the meeting but wished she could somehow help him feel better.

 

When the meeting continued, Zuko stayed sharp for about half an hour before starting to lose his focus again. His throat had gotten painfully sore and his turn to talk was coming up. Zuko stood up. When he started talking, his voice was sure hoarse, but somehow working. But the longer he talked the more painful it became and suddenly, no voice came out. Zuko coughed few times but it didn’t help. Quite the opposite, coughing made the pain in his throat worse and hurt his lungs. Multiple court members gathered around him, pushing him back down on his seat.

   “Lord Zuko, are you alright?” a minister asked.

   Zuko nodded. He drank some water but it didn’t really help.

   “It seems the Fire Lord is still not feeling well and is unable to attend to the rest of the meeting. We’re sorry for this inconvenience,” the minister told. 

   Without being able to argue back, Zuko had just to accept being practically kicked out of the meeting. He was frustrated. The servants tried to escort him to his room but Zuko marched outside and hit his fist against a tree trunk. He started coughing and leaned against the tree, slowly slumping on his knees. He had tried so hard so why his body had to turn against him at time like this? Suddenly, someone hugged him behind.

   “Zuko… It’s okay. Things like these just happen sometimes. It’s just one meeting, it’s not like the whole world will crumble if you miss it. I know you worked hard for this and you’re upset but I’m sure things will work out,” Mai told calmly.

    Zuko stayed still for while, then got up and stared at Mai. He couldn’t say anything so he just nodded as response. Holding Mai’s hand, he walked back to his room.

 

“I told you not to strain yourself,” the doctor told after checking Zuko’s throat. It was badly inflamed.  “Avoid talking, drink lot of liquids and stay in bed for few days. And instead of two times a day, you need to start taking your medicine four times a day until your throat gets better,” the doctor told.

   Well, it was easy to avoid doing something he was not able to do anyways. But Zuko wasn’t really happy to hear that he had to take that nasty medicine more frequently. Couldn’t he just… take double doses or something…? He hated when people kept telling him what to do while he was unable to reply.

   When the doctor left, Zuko was alone with Mai again. Mai could tell how frustrated Zuko was.  “You heard what the doctor said. Just rest. I can read you something,” Mai told.

   Even though the whole situation was crappy, Zuko was glad Mai was there. Lately, they hadn’t had much time to spend alone with Mai. Lying sick in bed wasn’t his ideal date but it was sure better than nothing. Unlike people’s speeches in the meeting, Zuko was able to concentrate on the story Mai was reading to him. Listening her voice slowly took away the feeling of frustration and when she finished reading, Zuko was smiling gently. Mai had been right, things would work out just fine.