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cat's cradle

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The cat problem started innocently enough. Shortly after Fire Lord Zuko ascended the throne, an infestation of mice took over the palace. At first it wasn’t anything major, but then one of the cooks saw a mouse in the kitchen. After the shriek he let out it, became clear that something had to be done. One of the palace servants had suggested bringing in cats to help catch the mice. The Fire Lord approved the idea with a quick nod of the head, barley aware of what he was agreeing to, only sensing the discomfort of the palace servants and wanting to ease it. The cats did their job rather quickly, and within the first week or so of their stay at the palace, the mice disappeared.

However, the cats were a different story. They just kept appearing. It was like they were multiplying, and the palace was turning into a home for stray cats. No one really seemed to mind the cats, apart from the maids who were going insane with the amount of cleaning now required. But once new help was hired, their irritation faded into a vague annoyance. It was hard to hate the cats with the way they roamed the palace like it was there’s to rule-most people found the cats to be quiet endearing. Most of all, to the Fire Lord.

There were a lot of things unexpected about Fire Lord Zuko’s reign; his kind heart, his benevolence, his love of the arts and the theatre especially, but the cats topped that list. The cats gravitated to the Fire Lord and no one knew how to react to that. He was like a magnet to them. The first time one of the cats had wandered into Zuko’s study, the guards let out a quiet gasp of anticipation waiting to see how the young ruler would react to the intrusion. And how he would react towards to guards who were careless enough to let a cat slip in unnoticed. The palace was still reeling from the days of Fire Lord Ozai. They did not expect Zuko to look at the cat with a soft grin and set it on his lap as he read through budget proposals.

No one expected that a week after one of the cats had found its way into the study, that the Fire Lord’s study would become a sort of safe haven for the cats. There had to be at least seven cats in the room at any given time, more if Zuko was it the room himself. Every time someone entered the chamber, they would be greeted by the sight of the Fire Lord surrounded by cats. Some of them lounging on the chaise by the entrance, some lying underneath the window, basking in the warmth of the sun, some climbing the curtains or lying on the desk. A few of the cats were even brave enough to climb onto the Fire Lord himself. Zuko didn’t seem to mind, he would stroke them while he read through whatever work he had that day. Sometimes, the guards thought they heard the Fire Lord read to them or ask them what they thought about General Eiko’s plan for decolonizing the Earth Kingdom before agreeing that yes, yes it was a dumb plan.

The cats loved Zuko, that was a fact. They would follow him around the palace, running behind him like they were his own personal guard. At some point, they made their way to the throne room, joining the Fire Lord for some of his meetings. Their presence irritated the Generals and Ministers to no end, but they didn’t dare bring it up to the Fire Lord. The Fire Lord loved the cats and had even asked his staff to start setting out food and water bowls for them around the palace. Once Zuko had asked that, the palace staff knew that the cats were there to stay.

The cats were one of those things that made the palace realize how different Zuko was from his father. No one working in that palace could have ever imagined Ozai with a cat on his lap, let alone carrying one around the palace so it could accompany him in his next meeting. No one ever saw the Fire Lord alone. Even on the nights that Zuko dined alone, no matter how late it was there were always at least three of the cats next to him. The guards pretended not to notice how the Fire Lord would sneak them some of whatever he was eating or the way the cats would brush themselves against his legs or the way the Zuko would smile when they did.  

For those who had been working in the palace since before Zuko’s banishment, the cats didn’t actually surprise them. They remembered fondly the way the young prince would feed the turtleducks in the courtyard. Apart from the few times he tried to imitate his sister, he was always incredibly gentle with them. Even as Fire Lord, he would sneak off to the courtyard to feed them whenever he needed a break. The cats would follow him there. The cats followed him everywhere. And Zuko loved it. He loved those cats to the point where it tittered between being annoying and being endearing. Sometimes it was just really weird.

-

A few weeks before Zuko’s seventeenth birthday, there was incident with one of the cats. Akira, one of the guards, was stationed outside the Fire Lord’s bedchamber. It was just before sunrise when she heard the door open and turned to look at the disheveled leader.  

“My lord,” she greeted.

“Oh, Akira, right?” he said.

“Yes, my lord,” she said before looking at him. He was still in his sleeping clothes, his hair messy and out of its usual top not. He resembled nothing of the way royalty ought to look. She hesitated before asking, “Is everything alright, my lord?”

He looked bewildered for a second before realizing that this situation was a bit odd. He grinned sheepishly, “I’m okay. Do you mind fetching a healer though?”

Akira’s eyes widened, “Are you alright my lord?” There was nothing about him to signal distress.

“Oh, ah- it’s not for me,” he said lamely. “It’s for Airi.”

Akira was taken aback. Who?

Picking up on Akira’s confused look, Zuko hastily added, “Airi- she’s one of the cats! I think she’s going into labor.”

Oh.

What?

“Oh, “ Akira said lamely.

Zuko shifted awkwardly. “I don’t know anything about cat labor and I just want to make sure she’ll be okay.”

Akira looked at him. It was one of those moments when she was struck by how different the young Fire Lord was from his predecessors. If Fire Lord Ozai had a cat giving birth in his bedchamber, his rage alone would have burned the palace to the ground.

“My lord, if I may, I can help. We have a cat a home. I’ve helped with this before.”

Akira is met with a bright smile on Zuko’s face. It makes him look younger. Maybe not younger, but it made him look sixteen.

“Oh, oh good. Okay, thank you so much,” he says hurriedly and gestures Akira into his room.

When the Fire Lord said there was a cat giving birth in his bedchamber, Akira had not expected the cat to be on his bed, or more specifically on his pillow. Zuko walked over to the cat and greeted her with a small whisper.

He looked at Akira, “Is it okay to pet her? I don’t want to stress her out.”

His voice was soft and tender in a way Akira didn’t know the ruling class was able to be.

Akira surveyed the cat before responding, “Gently. She is pretty early into her labor. Once it progresses, you should keep your distance. We’ll need some towels and hot water.”

Zuko nodded. He got up and walked to the washroom, returning a little later with a basin and some towels. Akira was slightly taken aback by his willingness to get things himself. She thought back to his family and how they had no problem ordering the palace staff around. Zuko was different. She had begun working in the palace a few years before Ozai’s reign. She had known Zuko since he was a bright-eyed little boy running through the palace walls, always saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and always asking rather than demanding. As she watched his face crease with concern as he looked at the cat on his bed, Akira was struck again by how different he was.

The palace was different now but sometime the old atmosphere of fear still clung to the walls. Sometimes Akira saw one of the servants drop something and freeze with the expectation of punishment. But Akira also saw the way the Fire Lord will flinch at the loud noise. The same demons that haunted the palace haunted him too.

“I didn’t even know she was pregnant.”

Zuko’s voice cut thought Akira’s thoughts. He continued after a second, “I thought she was just putting on a little weight. She, um, she likes to sleep in my room. She was sleeping peacefully until about an hour ago and then she started pacing. And I looked at her and realized…” he trailed off.

Akira took a closer look at the cat, recognizing it as one of the ones the Fire Lord was particularly fond of. The cat was snow white, apart from the speckles of black fur dotting her face and had big grey eyes. She had seen Zuko carry this one around the palace. She was lying on the bed, panting slightly and let out labored sigh. Zuko sat down next to her and gently stroked her head.

“It’s okay Airi. We’re here to help,” he whispered softly. Akira heard the cat meow gently and lift her head into Zuko’s touch.

“My lord,” she said gently before pausing to watch the gentle display of affection. “I should inform you that cats can be in labor for up to a full day.”

“Oh,” he said and paused. “I guess I should move my meetings here then,” he said without a hint of hesitation in his voice.

It was a widely inappropriate suggestion and they both knew it. To hold meetings in the Fire Lords bedroom was unthinkable but Zuko was not going to budge. Akira just nodded, completely unsure of how to react.

“Akira, I’m sorry to ask this. But would you be able to run to my study and get me some of the scrolls on my desk and also if you see Rei, would you tell him what’s going on?”

He was serious about not leaving the cat.

“Of course, my lord,” she responded with a quick bow and a hint of a smile at her lips. This whole situation was just completely ridiculous.

She found Minister Rei on her way back from Zuko’s study and informed him of what was happening. Rei looked like he was going to faint.

“A cat giving birth? Are you serious? I’ve seen him attend meetings with a fever so high it would put others in infirmary for a week and he’s moving all his meetings for a cat?”

Akira had no idea how to respond to this. “I think it’s one of his favorites,” she finally offered.

Rei looked scandalized and followed her into the bed chamber. Zuko was still sitting next to the cat, looking at her gently.

“My lord,” Rei said with a quick bow, “I’ve been informed of the situation and there is really no need to stay with this cat.” His voice clenched on the word cat.

“I’m not leaving her.”

“My lord,” Rei begged.

His voice was met with stubborn golden eyes and Akira had to hold back a laugh at the sight of Rei being bossed around by a 16-year-old.

Rei swallowed, “Do you think this is appropriate?”

“I’ll change and we’ll bring in a desk and some chairs,” Zuko responded defiantly, “And it’s only for the essential meetings, everything else can be pushed back till tomorrow.”

Rei knew from the tone of his voice that there was no use in trying to argue with Zuko and he reluctantly acquiesced.

Most of the ministers were scandalized, but a few of them were fully amused by the Fire Lord’s request. When they finally entered the room, they are met with the site Zuko sitting next to a cat on an unmade bed, with a cup of tea. At least he had changed into his formal Fire Lord regalia. Zuko leaves the bed when they arrive, opting to sit at the makeshift desk that had been brought into his room.

The meeting is over fairly quickly due to the fact that the ministers do not wish to witness the cat give birth and they shuffled out of the room leaving Zuko alone. Zuko thought to himself that he should have more cats give birth in his bedroom just so he’d have an excuse to get out of these meetings. He sighed and resumed his place next to Airi, leaving just enough distance not to overwhelm her while still letting her know he was there to help her.

He reached for one of his scrolls as he heard a knock on the door. It was Akira.

“My lord,” she started, “I’m sorry for the intrusion. I just wanted to come check on Airi.”

Zuko looked at her bewildered, “There’s no need to apologize. Thank you!”

Akira looked at the cat. Airi looked like she was doing well.

Zuko looked at Akira with concern, “Is everything alright?”

“She’s doing well. Cats are very capable creatures and there isn’t much we can do apart from just being here.”

Zuko nodded earnestly. It was clear the Fire Lord had zero intention of leaving this cat alone. And Zuko does not leave Airi until the last of her kittens are born. Airi’s labor takes up most of the day and by the time the last kitten is born, it’s well after sunset.

They’re so small. Zuko has never seen anything so tiny and so helpless before. Akira informed him that when kittens are born, they are unable to see and hear. Zuko had looked at her with panic in his eyes when he noticed that the kittens were not opening their eyes.

They were tiny and Zuko could not stop staring at them. He keeps his distance, letting the new mother clean and care for her children, but his eyes were fixated on them. The work he had planned to finish had been long forgotten.

When Airi finally fell asleep, Akira instructed that as long as Zuko was careful, he could check the kittens one by one. Zuko nodded his head apprehensively and gingerly picked up one of the kittens. It’s tiny enough that it fit snuggly into the palm of his hand and Zuko felt his heart going a mile a minute. For a second, while he was holding that kitten, Zuko was reminded of Azula, and the way she used to hold his hand for support while they were running through the palace as kids. His heart panged with the memory. At two years old, her hand had been about the same size as this kitten was now. Zuko swallowed whatever untraceable emotion was simmering to the surface and resumed checking the kittens. Luckily, they were all perfectly healthy.

He thanked Akira once again for all her help and told her she should get some sleep because it had been a long day. Akira nodded and told him that she would come check in on the kittens the following morning.

Zuko thanked her again. He figured he probably shouldn’t sleep on the same bed as the new mom, as to avoid stressing her out. The servants found him the next morning on one of the chairs they had brought in.

By the following day, the rumors that the Fire Lord let a cat give birth in his bedroom in his bed, nonetheless, are flowing through the palace unrestrained. Most people find it so incredibly endearing that they don’t for a second believe that anyone bearing the title ‘Fire Lord’ could ever do something that tender.

-

The story of Airi’s kittens becomes a sort of urban legend within the Fire Nation. And a story that a five-year-old Izumi will ask her father about many years later. Izumi shared a lot of things with her father, the cats were one of them. The cats of the royal palace followed her around, just like they did her father. Zuko’s eyes will twinkle at the memory as he pulls her onto his lap and he tells her the story, listening to her soft giggles and feeling perfectly content with the feeling of her snuggled up against him, as he tells her about the kittens.