Mai was having trouble with food.
It wasn't just morning sickness. She'd been warned about that. While it wasn't exactly her idea of fun, she could handle a little nausea. Even a lot of nausea. She'd lived in the Boiling Rock for weeks, and the food there guaranteed nothing but.
No. The trouble with food she was having was that she desperately wanted . . . something . . . and couldn't figure out what it was. And it was turning her into a waspish misery. Even her secretary was starting to hide from her. And if she was going to terrify people, she wanted to be doing it on purpose.
"Maybe it's something we ate when we were travelling," Ty Lee suggested. No amount of nastiness got rid of Ty Lee when she'd decided it wasn't actually because of her. She'd shown up on an eel-hound, dressed in Kyoshi Warrior travelling clothes (complete with makeup) about a week and a half after Mai and Zuko had arrived back in the Capital. She very obviously intended to stay until after Mai had delivered.
She was . . . Ty Lee. And Mai wavered back and forth between wanting to throw her off a cliff somewhere and being incredibly relieved she was here.
"I've tried it all," Mai said, shortly. Today was one of those days where she felt both of those things at the same time.
"Tried what all?" Katara asked, wandering in with a yawn. It was the middle of the day, but there had been a brief emergency that had kept Katara, Ursa and Zuko up most of the night, and that was another reason Mai was irritable. She resented being sent to bed like a child, even if she did know she'd been in danger of falling asleep in her chair.
"Mai can't figure out what it is she wants to eat," Ty Lee provided. "I thought it might be something we had when we were travelling all over with Azula, but she says she's tried it. And we all know she's tried almost everything in the Fire Nation and most things in the Earth Kingdom and besides, Earth Kingdom food is so bland I don't know how anybody could crave it." She paused, tilting her head to the side. Her braid slithered down over her shoulder. She was back in slightly less . . .garish clothes since she'd settled back in.
Katara frowned, sitting down on the divan beside Mai. " . . .what about Water Tribe food?" she said, eventually. Mai gave her a withering look.
"No offense, Katara," she said, "but I wouldn't crave Water Tribe food if I was starving to death." Katara, though, ignored the tone and looked thoughtful.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "I know we've tried everything else. And Anouka always craved stewed kelp when she was pregnant."
Mai opened her mouth to tell Katara exactly what a stupid, unbelievable idea that was. Except that thinking up enough words to describe just how awful that sounded meant that she wound up thinking about the stuff, the one time she'd forced herself to have some so she didn't insult Katara's grandmother. About the salt and the heavy taste, the slippery feel of it, and -
" . . . oh monkeyfeathers," she said. She would have been disgusted to hear how almost-plaintive she sounded, except that she was too busy being horrified at her mouth and her stomach.
Mai looked very, very dubiously at the steaming water. "Why am I doing this, again?" she demanded, still wrapped in her robe, arms holding it closed around her. "It smells like rotten eggs. It stinks."
Katara was already in, the water up to her waist, its clouded surface obscuring the lower half of her body and sweat starting to bead on her face, shoulders and breasts. "It's the sulphur," she said. "You can wash the smell off later. Take your robe off and come in, Mai. I promise you'll feel better."
Mai gave Katara a look that she hoped conveyed just how much she was taking on trust here, given the penetrating stink of the water and steam. She reluctantly took her robe off, put off the inevitable by folding it neatly and putting it on a rock.
Then, out of excuses short of actually just saying no, I'm going back to the palace and going to bed, she stepped into the shallow end of the pool. At this end, it wasn't much more than lukewarm: as she waded deeper and closer to where Katara was, though, the water got warmer and warmer.
"If you let yourself float," Katara said, "the water will support you. There's a bunch of salt in this hotspring, as well as the other stuff." She was already floating, the tips of her feet pointed along the surface of the water, her hair wet and splaying out along the surface like some kind of sea-monster.
Probably not the nicest simile ever, Mai would admit, but she still felt extremely doubtful about this whole thing, and a little bit sullen because the heat was, in fact, sort of easing the ache in her ankles.
When she folded her arms, resting them on her belly, Katara laughed, got her feet under her, and then pushed at the water until it welled up around Mai and knocked her over.
She muttered a few curses under her breath, but didn't feel like spluttering or fighting her way to her feet. And, well -
The heat did help. Even if floating around in the water with her stomach floating up above the surface made her feel even more like a whale. After a few moments, Mai did close her eyes and just let herself float, her hair sticking to the side of her face where the water pulled it out of the knot at the base of her skull, and her hands sculling idly at the surface.
She felt herself float up to push lightly against Katara's body, head against Katara's shoulder, and Katara floating beside her to lay a hand on Mai's belly. "Just making sure the baby's not too hot," she explained, obviously bending the water to keep herself afloat like that.
"It still stinks in here," Mai muttered, not willing to give ground entirely.
Zuko waited until both Mai and Ta Min (and part of him was still giddily dancing around in his own head shouting I have a daughter! and another part of him was frozen in absolute terror whispering I'm a father, but one of the skills necessary for being Fire Lord was, really, to always have a bit of you that functioned no matter what) were asleep, and Ty Lee had actually ordered both Katara (who was grey with exhaustion, but not asleep yet) and Zuko to sit down while she went and found something to eat and drink, before he looked at Katara and pointed out, "You said she wasn't due for another two weeks."
Katara opened her mouth, and then stopped, and started laughing weakly. She was leaning her head on the back of the chair; he worried about her, tiring herself like this, but she could pull rank (so to speak) on any of the other doctors telling her to rest.
At his look, she said, "I think Sokka would act indignant and offended right now, but I'm too exhausted." She shrugged. "I'm very tired, it just seemed really funny." She rubbed at her eyes and yawned. "Two weeks isn't very early, and I could tell she was healthy. And if we waited, Mai's mother would have been here. It wasn't hard to just sort of . . . " she waved one hand. "Convince Mai's body to go a little early."
Zuko thought about that. He thought about that for several moments, with a dawning sense of absolute horror. "Good choice," he said, fervently, as Ty Lee came back with slightly cautious-looking servants in tow. "Very, very good choice."
"What was a good choice?" Ty Lee demanded, sitting down cross-legged on one of the wide stools while the servant bowed, leaving trays of food on the low tables, bowed again at Zuko's murmur of thanks, and then left.
"Making sure Ta Min was born before my mother-in-law got back."
Ty Lee's eyes widened. "Oh, wow," she said, as if contemplating the horror as fully as Zuko had. "Oh wow. Yes."
"I can hear you, you know," Mai's voice said, sourly, making them all jump. Then, in the awkward, suspended pause, she added in a grudging sort of voice, "Thanks. Mom's going to be bad enough as it is."
We're not having nurses, they had agreed. They had never really discussed it except in sort of half-conversations, half-sentences, hints and bits and pieces. Sometimes half with Zuko's mother, sometimes . . . not.
But the underlying idea was this: Azula had been raised by nurses until she was almost three, because issues of state had made it almost necessary. (Almost. Katara thought that Ursa blamed herself for that a lot.) It wasn't possible to say for sure that was what went wrong with her, but who was willing to take the chance?
The only problem with this was that Mai and Zuko both had spent more time avoiding their younger siblings when those siblings were babies than Sokka did avoiding anything that might look like house-work if you squinted at it sideways. Which meant of the three of them -
Well, Katara had never realized just how much she thought was instinct came from practice she'd had for so long she couldn't even remember when she'd started.
She followed the sound of irritated baby wailing, running her fingers through her hair to detangle it, until she found Zuko in the nursery, looking frustrated. "She's not hungry," he said, the minute he sensed Katara was there. "I just changed her. Nothing's wrong - "
"Pick her up and put her against your sh - " Katara started, and then paused. "No, wait. First, take a few deep breaths. Like you were about to do kata." When Zuko shot her a dubious look, and another distressed one at the angry baby lying in her crib, Katara put her hands on her hips. "Come on, Zuko. If you can ground and center when a whole battlefield is trying to kill you . . . "
Sometimes, Zuko was still predictable: turn something into a challenge, and you tapped right into some part of him that couldn't back down. Katara watched him until he looked a bit calmer, and said, "Okay, now pick her up and put her against your shoulder. Rock back and forth and pat her back gently and say 'shh' a lot."
That got her another dubious look, but Zuko did it anyway, and only sort of acted like his daughter was a bomb likely to explode on him at any moment.
"It might take a minute," Katara started, but then stopped: Ta Min actually settled down very fast. Zuko frowned down at his child, as best he could with the position he was in.
"She didn't do that before," he protested, and Katara folded her arms, smiling slightly and shaking her head.
"You were upset before," she said. "Babies can sense that."
"Babies get sick," Katara said, patiently. "It happens. She'll be okay."
Mai was difficult to deal with when she was worried. Moreso when she was worried and couldn't do anything about it. Despite the frustration of that, though, Katara was proud of her in a way; she'd gone from being unsure even of how to hold Ta Min to cuddling her, now, and being hyper-aware of every change in mood and every snuffle.
"This is the third time in as many weeks," Mai protested, pacing back and forth along the floor with Ta Min fussing quietly against her shoulder, Lu Tin working away diligently at her desk.
"She's a baby," Katara repeated, from her own spot in a comfortable chair. She was rubbing at her own ankles. They weren't bad, but it helped to rotate them and massage them every few hours, even just with her own hands. "Her body doesn't have the ability to keep everything in balance yet. Lots of rest and lots to drink and she'll be fine."
"If you say so." Mai frowned, dubiously, sighed, and wiped at Ta Min's running nose with one end of the embroidered cloth she held on her shoulder. Then she looked over Ta Min's head at Lu Tin. "The reply so far?" she said, sharply, and Lu Tin paused in her writing to read off what she'd written to the Earth Kingdom's Lady Anyi.
After about a half an hour of listening to Lutaa scream, Mai sat up. Zuko'd obviously had the same thought, but Mai pushed him back down against the pillows. "Stay here," she said.
She was fairly sure the last thing Katara needed was Zuko fluttering around looking distressed and trying to help. When she got up, knotted her hair back, put on her robe and stalked into the nursery (where Ta Min, who was thankfully ignoring all the noise her sister was making, slept oblivious) to find Katara wandering back and forth with Lutaa on her shoulder, patting the baby's back and looking miserable and distracted, Mai knew she'd been right.
"I'm sorry - " Katara started, looking on the edge of frustrated tears. Mai ignored that, and firmly took Lutaa out of Katara's arms. Ignoring the sudden shocked silence and Katara's protest, as well as the moment when Lutaa burst into fresh protests, Mai checked the baby girl's diaper, looked her over and held her in her arms for a moment to see if Lutaa was rubbing at her ears or anything, and to check the temperature of Lutaa's forehead with the inside of her wrist. Lutaa wasn't, and her temperature was normal, and Mai knew Katara had to have fed her, so in the end, she put the baby back in the cradle, ignored Katara's new protest, took hold of Katara's arm and pulled her back towards the shared bed.
"But - " Katara started.
"No," said Mai. "If she's just going to scream, she can scream just as well while you're in bed. She'll probably give up if you just leave her alone."
"I can't do that!"
"Yes, you can." Because I'm stronger than you are, Mai didn't say out loud. She just kept pulling and eventually pushed Katara back into the bed and then wrapped an arm around her waist so she couldn't get up again. "Just go to sleep."
It took nearly twenty minutes. More than once, Katara tried to say, "But I just - ", but Mai just said, "No," and didn't let go.
Slowly, Lutaa's protests turned sleepier and more intermittent. And eventually, with one last petulant protest, there was silence.
"Told you," Mai said, sleepily, and Katara sighed, and almost as slowly as Lutaa had stopped crying, Katara's body relaxed and her breathing softened, and she fell asleep.
Zuko kissed the back of Mai's neck. "Good move," he murmured.
"She's like you," Mai replied, sleepily. "Sometimes you just have to ignore her temper tantrums until she gets over them."
In the slightly offended silence, she fell asleep, too.