A/N: I don't hate Mai. But I do hate Maiko. Therefore, this fic needed to be written. The start of yet another drabble series in the Zutara genre. More to come.
Disclaimer: Bryke owns this. Not me.
Mai loves Zuko, and Zuko loves Mai. It makes sense that they should be together, someday married (like simple math—Mai plus Zuko equals husband, equals wife). Zuko likes the sense it makes and Mai likes the sum of the equation, and so everything fits naturally, perfectly, like the teeth of a key slipping into a lock.
It makes sense that they should marry (everyone says so) because Mai is a noblewoman, and has the makings for a perfect future queen. She's smart, polite, level-headed and wise to the ways of Fire Nation politics. She has impeccable breeding, and Agni help him but he can't help but picture her sitting prim and proper on his mother's throne, face cold and flat like a river stone but her eyes like needles digging into his skin.
Sometimes, Zuko thinks (when he's alone and truly honest with himself), she's too empty, too much a weapon (she's deadly and accurate and never misses and sometimes it's just not human the way she can take lives without batting a perfectly-curled eyelash). Everything about her is sharp like her knives—her wit and her tongue and her beauty—but she loves him, loves him deep and hard and true and Zuko has been without such tenderness for so very long that it almost hurts to see the adoration shining out of her dark, guarded eyes.
It scares him as much as it thrills him, until his hands are shaking and he's nervous, nervous, nervous—he wants to be deserving of that admiration (every time he looks in the mirror it convinces him that he's not). He may be the Fire Lord and he may be a firebending master, but he is also a weak man with a guilty, guilty conscience and a black, black heart.
The Avatar knows this, and he can see it in the boy's gray, probing eyes (sometimes Zuko thinks that being the Avatar allows Aang to see deep into his soul, uncovering all of the sins that have accumulated like sludge in the gutters of his heart). The Avatar sees the heaviness in Zuko's crooked, boyish smiles and the worry behind his eyes. He knows how Zuko fears he will become his father (fears that he already is).
Aang also sees what Zuko himself refuses to—sees the absent way his hand traces the outline of the star-shaped scar on his chest when he's daydreaming, sees this strange, dark longing for something that can never be his (should never be his). The Avatar sees the darkest secret in his heart, and sees Katara's picture there.
Aang knows all of this without ever hearing a confession. At first, Zuko was terrified that his newfound friend would once again see him as an enemy once his secrets were revealed. Instead, the Avatar turns a compassionate eye Zuko's way when Mai delicately slips her arm through his, but says nothing (his silence hurts more than a blast of sharpened air ever could).
Mai either doesn't notice the sweatiness of his palms and the stiffness in his gait when the waterbender is near or simply doesn't care (like Aang, she never asks, though there is never any hint of sympathy in her gaze).
But Mai loves Zuko, and Zuko loves Mai. He will marry her and she will be a proper Fire Lady and his nation will prosper under their rule (simple math).
No one argues this, except for Toph.
Unlike the Avatar, Toph doesn't need ancient spiritual powers to see into people's hearts—Toph can uncover a secret simply by listening and feeling to what the person isn't saying. Toph knows everyone's secrets, even Zuko's (especially Zuko's), but unlike Aang, Toph doesn't have reservations on keeping quiet about them.
"You're making a mistake," she tells him one day, out of the blue, in a voice that is too know-it-all for his liking.
"What do you mean?" he asks, and Toph snorts in an unladylike fashion, flexing her toes in the dirt.
"Needles," she says. "You shouldn't marry her."
This irritates him, and so he snaps, "Why not? I'm in love with her."
Toph doesn't laugh like he'd expected her to. She only says, in a calm, slightly-sad voice, "It's not nice to lie to her like that," before fixing him with a blank stare that shoots electricity straight through the scar below his heart, making it throb slightly beneath his heavy red robes. "It's not nice to lie to yourself so much either, Sparky."
Zuko has nothing to say to that.
Reviews are like food. I need them to survive.