Author's Note: More unnecessarily long off-canon hijinks. Post-series.
Sex, Zuko had discovered, was a very troublesome thing.
It wasn't that he would necessarily qualify the act itself, which, granted, he had only experienced the once, as the trouble. Indeed, he would hazard to rank it amongst his favourite experiences, well, ever. Rather, the trouble presented itself in all of the other details and technicalities involved.
Namely, that sex generally required another person with which to have it. It wasn't that he regretted Mai being his person of choice. From a childhood consisting primarily of stolen glances on her part and mildly flustered confusion on his to fighting in the midst of a world-changing war, all the way up to their recent history of kisses in darkened corridors during the weeks preceding their actual wedding ceremony, Mai had been in Zuko's life for a long time. Further, Zuko felt very strongly that she belonged there and belonged with him.
But none of that made it any easier for him to figure out how to proposition her.
On the first night, it had been simple. They were just wed and had been sent to Zuko's rooms with the roaring celebration of their countrymen, their people, ringing in their ears. They both knew exactly what they were expected to do and do that they did. As result of a previous conversation with Uncle, most of which Zuko had banished from his mind in the interest of preserving his sanity, Zuko was vaguely aware that things were...different for girls. This in mind, he'd done his level best to minimize Mai's discomfort and make it, at least, somewhat enjoyable for her. ("Slowly and gently," Uncle had said very seriously as Zuko wondered how much longer before his face literally burst into flame. "Pay close attention to how she reacts. You might learn something," he added with a smirk.)
He wasn't, however, sure of to what degree he'd succeeded. Zuko felt very adamantly that he couldn't be expected to figure it all out in one go, but he wasn't sure if Mai was expecting that of him since she wasn't particularly forthcoming about the whole ordeal.
"I'm fine," had been her answer to his inquiry about whether she was all right afterwards, and his further attempts to ask vaguely after any discomfort seemed only to annoy her. So, Zuko fell silent and watched her as she rose, wrapped herself in her disgarded dressing gown, and disappeared into the washroom for a few mysterious minutes. When she came back, however, she did rejoin him in bed, curled up on her side and facing towards him.
Zuko stared at her across the pillow, watching the guttering candelight play across her face. Her eyes were downcast and he was close enough that he could count her lashes. "I'm fine," she repeated softly, addressing his chin, though he hadn't said anything. Zuko felt that it wouldn't be wise to point that out, however. Instead, he continued watching her. And when her hand, which lay beside his on the pillow, twitched ever closer until her fingers were loosely entangled with his, he decided to take it as tacit approval, though of what exactly, he wasn't entirely sure.
His plans to further explore the entire situation the following night were very well thwarted by a bevy of ministers and advisors who all seemed to have Very Important Concerns that required Zuko's immediate attention late into the night. After all, the concerns of the Fire Lord did not pause in order to allow him time to do things like adjust to his marriage. The third time someone claimed, "Just one more thing, Fire Lord Zuko," Zuko met it with a barely intelligible snarl about the fact that it was getting very late. It served his immediate purposes as they all apologized profusely and bid him a good night, but Zuko did not appreciate the conspiritorial looks that they gave him as he departed.
That all turned out to be a moot point, though, since when he got to his bedroom, Mai was there, but she also seemed to be asleep. Zuko climbed into bed more than a little cranky and attempted to comfort himself with the fact that they both still had many more nights left in their lives.
On the third night of their marriage, Zuko was early to bed and sat there not really paying any attention at all to the report of troop withdrawals at which he was staring. He was ten minutes away from going to find his errant wife when she appeared, swept over to the bed, and sat down.
"Good evening," Zuko said, staring at the back of her head. Zuko was well aware that he was not the best conversationalist, but he really didn't appreciate that the minimal ability he did have at speaking to Mai in a dignified manner seemed to disappear entirely whenever they were in his room together. It seemed patently unfair.
She turned half to face him slowly, her shoulders tensed, and he saw her mouth open and close once before she mumbled a greeting in return. Zuko caught her eye and an interminable moment passed where all he could hear was their breathing, unnaturally heavy to his ears, before Mai turned away again and lay down, facing the empty room.
A multitude of considerations went through Zuko's mind at that point. He wondered what it was she'd wanted to say to him. He wondered whether she even wanted to be here, instead of off in her own room, or if she just felt like she had to be. He wondered what he could possibly say to make her get back up and, at least, look at him. He wondered if there was some protocol for this sort of thing and who he might be able to ask. And he wondered exactly how long it would take before this drove him entirely crazy.
However, none of this brought him to a suitable plan of action and, so, Zuko did the only thing he could think of. He extinguished the candles burning in the tapers, lay down, and eventually fell into very frustrated slumber.
So began an excrutiating routine.
Mai would come into his bed, a silent flurry of long, pitch black hair and pale, slender limbs and dark, red silk, and then, she would lay down with barely a word to him.
It wouldn't have been so bad, Zuko'd thought on the fourth day, if she wasn't so...present. Seeing her hair loose, falling down her back, caused a strange, if not unpleasant, sensation in his stomach. And when it fanned out behind her as she lay down, sometimes tickling his bare skin, the sensation had a tendency to travel downward. Then there was the way that she smelled. An indescribable mixture of oils and soaps and just her that would haunt him even when she wasn't anywhere around. He didn't know how she did that, but he wished that she would stop. And in the night, when she shifted in her sleep, every once in a while an arm or leg would glance against him, and he would miss the feeling of those arms and legs twined around his body, as fleeting as it had been.
All things considered, Zuko didn't sleep much.
Late on the sixth night, long after Mai was sound asleep, Zuko lay there, listening to her deep, slow breaths and acutely aware of the way the blood was rushing through his veins, and decided that the situation had become dire enough that, when the opportunity next presented itself, he would have to take a direct approach.
Well into the next morning Zuko still found the beautiful simplicity of his new plan to just reach for Mai, to touch her and hope that nature would afterwards take its course, extremely appealing. However, his faith was shaken when, emboldened by his intention to be even more bold later, Zuko thought to invite Mai to eat lunch with him.
"I'm not hungry," was her immediate reply.
"You can join me for dinner then," he tried, suddenly suspicious that perhaps his plan would not be as simply executed as he'd hoped.
"I won't be hungry then either."
She turned and began to stalk away and Zuko realized that he needed to do something to salvage this situation. Certainly, he didn't actually fully understand what the situation was, but it felt like something was expected of him and Zuko very much hated to disappoint.
"A-are you all right?" he managed just before she'd reached the corner at the far end of the hall. She paused and Zuko thought for a moment that she might turn around.
"I'm fine," she gritted out instead and disappeared around the corner.
Zuko spent the rest of the day wondering if he should ever actually believe her when she said that. He half-expected her not to show up for bed at all and, that in mind, had already laid down himself by the time she did. She sat down on the bed hard, jostling him out of his half doze, and when he looked at her to see if he could find even the slightest bit of encouragement, the glare she gave him made him wish he hadn't looked at all. It was challenging and furious and Zuko found himself unsure that Mai wouldn't cut him just on principle as soon as he closed his eyes, much less if he actually offended her person in some way.
An entire week into their marriage, Zuko admitted to himself that he needed advice. Unfortunately, upon admitting it to himself, he had reached the end of the very short of list of people in the world to whom he was actually willing to make said admission. Even more unfortunately, to Zuko's mind, during the afternoon tea that Uncle insisted they have, it became apparent that he didn't actually need to admit to anything to receive advice.
"Have you considered being more romantic, Zuko?" Uncle asked.
Zuko spluttered wordlessly for a moment, which he felt was warranted considering that they had been discussing revised trade routes.
"What are you talking about, Uncle?!"
The older man shook his head balefully and gave Zuko a pitying look. "I have lived a long time, nephew. I can tell from the way that you and your wife have been carrying yourselves that you've been having some...problems in that area."
Zuko tensed and immediately cast around for an exit route. He knew that moving too quickly would likely just incite his uncle to rush along to the key points of his impromptu lesson and whatever those were, Zuko knew that he would never be able to unhear them, regardless of how hard he tried.
"We're not having any problems!" he insisted somewhat desperately. Zuko had always been a bad liar, particularly under pressure, and the fact that he couldn't for the life of him figure out how to initiate lovemaking, that he was so frustrated that he could barely hold onto a coherent thought for more than a few minutes, and that he was starting to believe that he had failed so spectacularly the one time that they did have sex that Mai now hated him in no way improved his ability to be convincing when attempting to hide the truth. "We're not having any anything!" he added before he could stop himself.
Uncle Iroh's face took on a look of dawning realization and he smiled. "Ah, I see," he said.
"No, no you don't-" Zuko began, but Uncle Iroh cut him off.
"It's fine, Zuko. Every woman is different, you know. Each a unique and beautiful flower. And different flowers open for...pollination at different times and for different reasons!"
Zuko buried his face in his hands. "Uncle, please," he murmured despite knowing that his pleas would, at this point, fall entirely on deaf ears.
"My earlier point about being romantic still stands. And never be crude, Zuko. Mai does not strike me as the sort of young lady to find that attractive. You should also be sure to compliment her. She is lovely and you'd be surprised how likely you noting that is to arouse her interest. And one of the most important things, Zuko, is to be thorough in your attentions. Try to focus on all of her, not just areas that-"
The rest of the statement was lost in the tumult as Zuko stood up so quickly that he sent his teacup and various other pieces of porcelain clattering across the table and then fled the room as quickly as was remotely dignified for the Fire Lord to do so.
That night, as Zuko stared up at the canopy, he found that he didn't even need to look at Mai when she entered and sat down in order to perceive that she was no more positively inclined towards him than she had been for the last few days. As such, he wasn't sure whether it was bravery or that his nearly-palpable frustration had entirely relieved him of his senses, but after she had arranged herself, back to him and that same respectable distance between them, Zuko propped himself up on one elbow and cleared his throat.
Mai shifted slightly, but otherwise gave no indication that she'd heard him.
"Your...your hair is..." Zuko began, but realized halfway through the statement that he had no real idea what he was going to say. He also had no idea why he was attempting to enact Uncle's advice in any way, shape, or form.
A moment passed and Mai half-turned, looking over her shoulder. "My hair is what?" she asked.
"Your hair smells," Zuko offered. "It smells like-"
Mai returned to her previous position as she cut him off in mid-statement. "How kind of you to inform me that my hair is particularly odiferous. I'll take that under consideration."
Zuko sat up fully, leaning partially over her, half in the hopes that he could actually make eye contact. "That's not what I meant and you know it!" he protested vehemently.
In response, Mai elbowed him quite solidly in the stomach.
"Are you crazy?! What was that for?" he managed when the air had returned to his lungs.
When Mai did not respond Zuko grabbed hold of her shoulder with the intention of turning her to face him, but she shook off his hand and deliberately stayed put, her posture somehow defiant even though she was lying down.
"What is your problem?" Zuko tried again, feeling that his voice, though loud, was still remarkably calm considering the situation.
"What do you think my problem is?" Mai responded, her tone making it clear that she felt he should already know.
Zuko scowled. "If I knew what it was then I wouldn't have asked!"
"So it really never occured to you," she began, voice nearly shaking with fury, frustration, and something else that Zuko couldn't identify, "that you having sex with me exactly once and then never so much as touching me again would upset me?"
Zuko felt, for a moment, as if all of the air had been sucked out of the room and when he spoke again all of his annoyance had been replaced with perfect incredulity. "You never said anything- you never asked me to! I thought that you-"
This time Zuko was cut off by Mai's pillow barreling into his face as she finally turned towards him.
"I shouldn't have to ask you to want me!"
It was the first time she had raised her voice and, now sitting up fully, the first time she had actually met his eyes. Her mouth was turned in displeasure, her eyes were narrowed, and her face flushed from anger. Zuko felt that it was probably entirely inappropriate for the only thought he could formulate to be how beautiful she looked.
Thusly distracted, he remained silent, but still had enough of his wits about him to react when Mai reached again for the pillow, which he had discarded on the far side of the bed. She lunged for it at the same time that Zuko made his own grab, but he was closer and his reach was longer. He got a firmer grip than she did and wrested it out of her hands. Undeterred and with reflexes Zuko found extremely admirable, among other things, Mai collected herself from where she had been sprawled across his legs after her failed dive for her own pillow and made an attempt on Zuko's.
It was behind him and Mai, deftly reaching around him, managed to club him in the back of the head with it before Zuko could close a hand around one of her wrists.
"This is stupid," he said, tugging at her wrist to pull her back around to face him. He was also trying very hard not to think about how tiny and delicate her wrist was or how soft the skin of its underside was against his thumb.
"So are you," she responded and Zuko thought it might have been less heated than her previous declarations. Though, it was entirely possible that he was just imagining it, heady from the proximity. One of Mai's legs was still thrown over Zuko's and her reach behind him and his subsequent pulling her about had left them the closest they'd been to each other since their wedding night.
This was, to Zuko's mind, intensely uncomfortable in the same way that every night since his marriage had been uncomfortable. Except worse.
"I didn't know how to- ask- if you wanted to-" Zuko paused and nearly lost track of his statement when he realized that Mai's expression had softened considerably and he definitely wasn't imagining it. "I didn't know how to ask," he finished lamely.
"So, you're stupid like I said." The insult would have carried more weight had Mai not shifted, tangling their legs together further and causing his rather obvious arousal to be pressed against her thigh. Zuko wasn't sure whether the violent blush claiming her face meant that it had been intentional. He also could not profess to care.
"You don't have to ask," Zuko confirmed pointlessly.
"Neither do you," Mai said and kissed him.
Zuko released her wrist in favor of sinking his hand into the soft, thick fall of her hair. He tugged lightly and she pressed herself more closely to him, deepening their kiss. Zuko reveled in the too-long-absent feeling, heat radiating out through his entire body from the points of contact. Mai's hands began to scramble their way under Zuko's shirt as he reclined back onto the bed, taking her with him. Mai smiled when they finally broke the kiss and, this time deliberately Zuko was sure, rubbed her thigh against him. He arched into her and groaned as she ran her fingernails lightly down his chest and across his stomach.
Zuko dropped a soft kiss on her shoulder, eliciting something that sounded suspiciously like a giggle, before letting his own hands wander, tracing the curves of her body under her nightdress. Mai did not lean into his touch. Instead, after a few moments, she pressed a kiss to his mouth and then his neck and hauled herself up to her knees, straddling one of his legs.
For a moment, Zuko thought that Mai had suddenly, horribly changed her mind, but then she tugged her nightdress up over her head and let it fall in a crumpled pile of silk at the foot of the bed. Zuko only allowed himself to be stopped dead by the perfect expanse of bare flesh for an instant before following suit, wriggling out of his shirt and tossing it aside.
Mai leaned back into him at the same time he reached for her, pressing their bare chests flush against each other. Zuko captured Mai's mouth in another searing kiss and she ran her hands through his hair as he rolled her over onto her back. His face was buried in the valley between her breasts, pressing ardent kisses at the base of one soft swell, when he realized that Mai had gone to work on his pants, sliding them down his hips as far as she could manage from her vantage point. Zuko kicked them the rest of the way off with great aplomb and lifted his head to meet Mai's eyes. Mai nodded in response to his unvoiced question, lips slightly parted and breath coming fast, and hooked one leg around his waist for emphasis. When he moved, closing that final distance between them, she gasped, then sighed and it was like a bolt of lightening down his spine.
A large part of Zuko wanted to close his eyes, to lose himself entirely in the overwhelming sensation, but the stronger compulsion was to look at Mai. He watched the fluttering of her eyelashes and the way she bit her bottom lip and thought that he might never want to be anywhere else in the entire world. It was better than their wedding night, he decided, when he'd been nervous and tentative, when Mai hadn't arched her back in quite this way or thrown back her head, exposing her long slender neck for him to trace a path on with his tongue. He lost complete track of everything but her in same way, though. And when he broke, as Mai clutched at his shoulders, nipped at his jaw, and whispered his name, his arms gave out in the same way as well.
"Zuko?" Mai asked after a few silent moments.
"Mmm?" Zuko responded, voice muffled due to the fact that his face was buried in her hair.
"If you intend for this to be a routine afterwards, I'm going to need you to lose a lot of weight."
It took a few seconds before Zuko's newly sluggish thought processes made sense of that, and he mumbled an apology as he rolled off of his wife.He didn't go far, however, and propped himself up on his side and stared down at her as she reached for the discarded sheets and pulled them up over herself.
"Are you all right?" Zuko asked and vowed that he would not accept her normal answer because there was no way that he was going to begin this particular cycle of miscommunication over again.
She didn't answer him at first. Instead she rolled over onto her side, putting her back to him, but then shifted closer so that her body was curled up in the contour of his.
"I will be," she said, as she reached back and grabbed his hand and then deliberately placed his arm around her waist. "As long as you never go that long without just saying what you want to say to me ever again."
"I will if you will."
Zuko couldn't see her smile, but he could hear it in her voice. "We'll see how well that works out."
Zuko neither required or was under the impression he would receive more explicit agreement than that, so he managed to free a corner of the bedding for himself, pressed a kiss to the side of Mai's neck, and settled in for some actual sleep.
Sex, Zuko had decided, was worth every bit of trouble.