The Fire Nation palace was calm and peaceful at the hush of midnight. The summer breeze brought a wonderful chill to those in their warm beds that night. All was silent except for the calm sounds of a new mother putting to bed her newborn child.
"Please be quiet, you darling little parasite," cooed Fire Lady Mai to the swathed bundle in her arms. She'd been pacing through the nursery for almost half an hour now, rocking the baby steadily in her arms. Clearly it wasn't working since the little darling was still screaming its little head off.
Mai had long since lost her patience. She had done everything she was supposed to. She'd changed it, feed it, burped it, changed it again and still it continued with the waterworks. Why wouldn't it stop?
The young mother debated upon her options. The Royal Nanny was on leave (Zuko had been in a rather annoyingly generous mood), so that was out. Her next choice was to wake up her husband and make it all his problem, just for the fun of it. Unfortunately that meant giving Zuko the satisfaction of knowing she could not take care of her own child for one night.
"What do you want from me," she begged, switching the baby from one arm to the other. Somehow, the cries were getting louder. The baby' toothless mouth was wide open, gasping for breath to continue the symphony of tears. Its face was a frightening shade of sunburn red. If the moment were more amusing, Mai would have noticed how it looked like a bright red tomato.
Running out of ideas, Mai stared deeply into the flame of the room's single candle. How did her mother stop Tom-Tom from crying when he was a baby? Mai racked her brain for a memory, but soon realized there wasn't one. Mai remembered she had the habit of leaving the room whenever her baby brother so much as quivered a bottom lip. As she ran her fingers through her tousled hair for the millionth time that night, Mai really wished she'd made a greater effort in her youth to be a helpful big sister.
Too late for that. Karma sucked.
The next option open to her was Iroh. The old man had taken some time away from his beloved Jasmine Dragon to meet the new member of the Imperial family. He was extremely devoted to the child and would do anything for it.
Alas, Mai could not bring herself to do it. Her radius of caring had increased in area just enough since her teenage years to include the kindly former general. She couldn't bear the thought of waking him. Plus, he would surely inform Zuko. She liked him and all, but the old man couldn't keep his mouth shut.
"So what would the old man do?"Mai pondered to herself. Zuko had often used this technique when he was without his uncle's wisdom. Mai thought it a little stupid but, at the moment, she was desperate enough for all forms of idiocy if it was necessary.
"WAHHH!" wailed the child. It had the habit of switching from pleading sobs to pealing screams. Now was a screaming moment. For Mai, it was the moment she cracked.
Without a word and with all the restraint she had, Mai placed her child in its crib and walked out of the room. She silently closed the door, but could still hear the screams, 'How could you leave me? You're my mother, you're supposed to love me and fix everything! Where are you, mother?!'
For the first time in the longest time, Mai cried. There was no bawling or wailing, that just wasn't possible for her anymore, but tears cascaded down her cheeks all the same. This child had made her hit rock bottom.
And to think she never thought she would feel anything towards her child. Through the whole pregnancy that was all she feared. At some point in her life her indifference was a tool she used not to care, now it wore her like a coat and she had no power against it and it scared her. She had learnt to care about people, Zuko taught her that. She cared about her people and her parents and the Avatar and that whole gang. But, when it came to love, true unconditional love for the people she couldn't live without, that list was tiny and exclusive. Over the past 22 years of her life she could name all the people on that list on one hand.
But now there was this child. This child that would either be loved or unloved and its own mother didn't even know. That was why she had spent the past four days of its life avoiding it unless it was absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, when you're the mother of a child you are expected to be attached as if life as you knew it would be destroyed if the mother-child bond did not flourish. If she dared to properly look into those amber eyes that would bore indefinitely into her's and she didn't feel instant, everlasting love
.well, she just might have to kill herself. That was if, of course, her heart actually beat under her ice cold chest.
The baby's screams had temporarily subsided to desperate sobs and Mai knew she was being summoned. Taking a shallow breath the Fire Lady reentered the nursery.
Mai peaked in at first, as if her mere presence in the child's inner sanctum would set off an alarm. Slowly she walked towards the crib, her padded slippers barely making a sound. She looked down at her child. The baby was still sobbing, tears running down its flushed face, silky ebony hair slightly damp. With hesitant fingers she gingerly picked up the child and cradled her baby in her arms. For a moment she simply rocked the child, listening to the baby's effervescent peals, her head towards the sky with her eyes shut tightly. Cautiously, Mai parted her lips and sang:
"Leaves from the vine,
falling so slowly
like fragile tiny shells,
drifting in the foam."
The sound of her singing voice was so foreign to Mai her eyebrows knitted together, unsure if it was good or bad.
"Little soldier boy,
Come marching home.
Brave soldier boy,
Comes marching home."
It took a couple of moments, but Mai realized that the infant was actually getting quieter, still screaming but just a decibel lower. The Fire Lady continued to sing, eyes still shut as she rocked the child around the room.
Mai wasn't sure how many times she had sung that one verse but she eventually realized that the only voice to be heard was her own. Not thinking she looked down at the baby, puzzled. Her amber eyes met its wide ones and they were locked. Within seconds Mai was lost in those eyes and her heart was swept away so fast, she gasped. She would die for this child. She would die a million slow, excruciating deaths, and destroy any who would dare even think of harming this child. She would hurt Zuko for this child.
The sudden rush of emotion physically startled Mai. It surprised her even more than every thought was true. She never thought there could be anyone she loved more than Zuko, but now
The Fire Lady continued to rock and sing to her child for the rest of the night. Long after it had silenced, long after it had peacefully drifted off to sleep, long after the sun brightened the sky.