Mai has imagined the scenario a thousand times in a thousand different ways, over a period of more than a thousand days. It has been over three years since she had last seen him, but now the wait was over. For the first time in perhaps ever, she finds herself completely alone with Prince Zuko.
It is very late at night, or perhaps early morning, and only the giant full moon in the sky lights her way. She takes a glance back, far away, at a great hall in the Earth Kingdom, where Fire nation troops and generals are celebrating noisily. There are fires lit outside the hall, as Earth Kingdom flags burn to ash. Mai has had a little too much sake, and her head thrums with a kind of confidence. She doesn't show it, except for a slight flush on her normally porcelain skin. She has stumbled out of the party looking for Prince Zuko.
She considers herself incredibly fortunate to be standing mere feet away from him. If she reached out her hand, she could touch him. He is really right there. It seems like an obvious realization, but the thought fills Mai with such happiness that she almost smiles. Almost.
In fact, she stands with her arms crossed, a perpetual bored frown across her face, leaning against a tree.
Zuko lies spread out in the grass, gazing up at the moon and the stars. He glances at her offhandedly, as though waiting for her to speak. But she doesn't, simply frowning at the world.
He sounds tired. "Did Azula send you to find me?"
"No," she snaps, a hint of irritation in her voice.
"Oh," he finishes lamely, glancing away from her honey colored eyes.
She wants to say something. She feels like her heart is on fire. She wants to say she's sorry he had to ever leave, but he's back now. Can't everything return to normal? It can't. The scar is still there on his face. The moonlight softens him up a little, shining on his face and making him more like the prince she knew once, when he was still innocent. His topknot is gone, his hair shorn close to his head. He is lying in the grass with his shoes off like some common peasant, an empty sake bottle sitting next to his bare feet. He has never looked more human to her.
"The party is in your honor," she says, in her own tacit way trying to tell him he is not alone.
Zuko cranes his neck and looks at her oddly. Mai wonders if he's going to snap at her, but he remains silent and she remains expressionless, though her heart is thudding in her ears and she feels like her knees will give out if he keeps looking at her like that. Instead he turns back to the night sky.
Now she really can't stand anymore. She walks unsteadily next to Zuko, flopping next to him on the grass. She somehow still manages to be utterly silent about it, the silent grace of her muscle memory taking over while her mind buzzes.
She tries again, the thrum of her brain encouraging her to talk. "You got your honor back. That's what they're celebrating." Zuko smells the sake on her breath.
"They're celebrating Fire Nation victory over a village of Earthbenders. A village of dead families. Where's the honor in that?"
She wonders if they're celebrating a victory, why is his voice filled with defeat?
"Zuko," she breathes, in her raspy voice, and saying his name aloud thrills her, "what is honor?"
He looks at her and she notices the corners of his eyes are a little red and swollen. He starts laughing.
"You know what?" he notes bitterly, "I don't think I know what honor is anymore."
He continues to laugh, and his laugh, which used to ring with happiness throughout the halls of the palace, many years ago, is now harsh with a tinge of mania.
It scares Mai at first, but his eyes are still the same, sad, innocent eyes, and reassured, she begins to giggle too. The sound is completely unlike her.
They quiet, and Mai notices Zuko's muscles relax for the first time since she has approached him, and a warm feeling fills her stomach as his eyes slowly close and they settle into a comfortable silence.
She can't stop looking at him, his boyish face slightly more gaunt than she remembers it, all razor sharp angles and rough edges, angry red scar standing out against smooth skin. She reaches out to touch it, she can't help herself, and the thrum of her brain isn't helping a bit.
Her fingertips barely graze his scar before his eyes flutter open and he grabs her wrist. It's funny, he isn't squeezing hard at all, his grip is very loose, but the intent is there. The force is there. His whole body is tensed again, angry golden eyes looking at her own,
His tone is flat. "You're drunk."
Her heart is thudding louder now, with a mix of adoration, excitement and a tinge of fear. Blasé as ever, she smiles lazily and says to him, "You are too."
His face is mere inches from hers and his grip on her wrist doesn't lessen. She leans in, placing a soft kiss on his lips. He freezes, pulling away from her and immediately releasing her wrist.
"It's complicated," he says, looking away from her, tensed, but not quite getting up or leaving. The line sounds hollow, practiced, and with a pang she wonders how many times he's said it.
"There's nothing complicated about this," she snaps coldly. How could there be? He's the Prince of the Fire Nation and she's a Fire Nation noble. She's known him since she was born. Their mothers were friends. The match is perfect. It could come out of a fairytale.
Still, she feels like he's going to get up and go away, but instead he takes her hand very gently and closes his eyes, placing her hand on his scar. The area radiates heat, as though the anger of the fire lord would never cool.
"I'm… not who I used to be. I'm not the heir to the fire nation throne, " he manages to say with such self revulsion and pain that she just wanted to shoot a dart into whoever made him suffer.
She has imagined a thousand scenes in a thousand ways and she has imagined a thousand things she would say to him. She wants to reassure him that Azula has restored his honor and he will be welcomed back into his father's arms. She wants to tell him everything will return to normal. But even to her own buzzing mind, it sounds somehow false, and doesn't convey the extent of what she feels and she was never one to talk much anyway.
Her thrumming mind speaks without consenting her. "I… I'm not so bad at making tea."
The air is filled with everything she doesn't say. Zuko's eyes open with a start. His eyelashes flutter against her hand and she withdraws guiltily, aware of his complete attention on her, and she feels like she has to explain herself since he's staring at her like he's never seen anything like her before. She is about to tell him she doesn't care what he does, that she's liked who he is from the beginning, whether that was as a young boy in the fire lord's castle, an exiled prince chasing the avatar, or a young man making tea in ba sing se.
She wants to tell him all these things but she never gets a chance because he suddenly kisses her. His arms wrap around her, his hands burn on her body and his hot breath is on her neck as he kisses her gently, forcefully, everywhere, and Mai feels like her heart is about to burst.
So this is what kissing Zuko felt like. Mai wants to cry and laugh at the same time and it's better than anything she could have imagined and probably anything she's ever experienced, and the last thing she hopes, before her body takes over her mind and thought stops, is that she'll remember this tomorrow.