by Thyme In Her Eyes

Author's Note: I love Mai to bits, so it makes sense that my first Avatar 'fic would focus on her! This is set sometime after the finale, and addresses some of the events that took place during those episodes, though on the whole it's quite spoiler-light. This 'fic also contains some Zutara implications and a fluffy Maiko outcome. Now enjoy the story and remember that all feedback is appreciated.

-- BALM --

Unlike most girls her age, Mai hated drama. Milking an emotion for all it was worth, ranting it out, blowing petty misunderstandings out of all proportion and generally making a scene did absolutely nothing for her. Why cry for attention you never really needed?

And besides, she had plenty of problems that were absolutely real. Better to deal with those first before worrying over imagined insults and scenarios that might never happen.

Objectivity was Mai's preference. She liked the quiet and stillness of her mind – it helped her to see things so much clearer. Blank stares and cooling thoughts kept her sharp and balanced as a blade's edge; ready for anything. She got through the day and slept well at night without fussing over those self-inflicted, self-involved and totally self-indulgent complications that so many others liked to wallow in. Unlike most other girls, Mai knew how to be calm and free. It was her gift, her balm.

Maybe she should have felt a twinge of something when she came back to Zuko and saw the bandages covering his chest; a flicker of something other than concern followed by relief. Something less practical, perhaps. Maybe there should've been something else in the mix, souring her happiness. Perhaps a warning alarm should have sounded in her mind and crawled in her belly when she saw what was hidden underneath those clean white bandages – a new scar, one he'd earned from Azula after taking a bolt of lightning meant for the waterbender girl. Maybe, when she heard the story of how Zuko threw himself in the bolt's path and essentially sacrificed himself, something inside her should have withered and cried. Maybe it should have scratched and clawed at her imagination for days and nights afterward. Perhaps she should have looked at him then – at his eyes, at his scar – and felt a hurt emptiness inside. It was totally normal, expected even, to harbor a hard and smarting piece of bitterness or suspicion, or both. It was okay to see a scar, and imagine it meaning so much more. Any other girl in her position might have felt angry or rejected somehow by Zuko's courage and selflessness, and Mai knew it. Everyone would have understood and nobody would have blamed her.

But then, nobody really knew Mai. Only one person had really glimpsed the girl hiding and waiting underneath layers of silence and sarcasm. He could see her and understand why, after everything, it was so easy to take her back into his arms again. Only he knew her well enough to know why she always smiled to herself – a smile subtle, but sharing – when her fingertips lazily brushed the burnt flesh of abdomen.

Someone else might have seen the burn-scar as a symbol of a part of her lover's life that she could never fully belong to, a deep and permanent mark of a change that had taken place while she was far away. Something she could never understand or share. A change that connected him to another girl, maybe. Envy and hostile thoughts were perfectly natural.

Any other girl might have wasted hours of every day worrying about it, imagining him slipping through her fingers and into someone else's hands. Another girl might have hated and feared her rival and dreaded group reunions. Every glimpse or stolen feel of that scar would be a cruel reminder, and perhaps Mai should have hated the sight of it. Most girls would have thought she was justified.

Looking at the red and ruined patch of skin or feeling it under her hand, perhaps it was natural to feel jealous or cast aside. It was a scar that spoke of his loyalty to someone else, after all. Someone worth being burned for. Maybe even someone worth dying for.

What was most normal for Mai to be thinking, each time Zuko's burned skin was under her touch, was that he had never done anything like that for her.

But Mai had never been like most girls. Fast as a blade flying from her hand, her understanding sliced apart any scraps of self-indulgent silliness. Her insights and emotions were beautifully honed, her mind as clear as a glimmering knife, and it cut through the drama proudly and perfectly, and left something pure at the core.

Whenever she saw or touched Zuko's scar, the livid mark he'd taken and worn proudly for Katara, the only thought that ever passed through Mai's mind was that his scar represented one thing only: how close he'd come to death. So close that only Katara's hands had brought him back. It was impossible to see secret romances or proof of her own unimportance in that mess of melted and pained flesh; only that Zuko had suffered and almost died, but hadn't. That was what mattered. That was the one thing that would always matter. He was still with her, body still hers to see and touch, and that was all she could care about. She loved the scar as quietly and constantly as she loved him, and touched her lips to it in gratitude as she flew free from fake and flimsy worries and fears.

Mai's great gift was her total disinterest in drama, and her gift rewarded her whenever she felt Zuko's scar underneath her hot, searching palm and saw things as they truly were. Smiling softly to herself, she caressed the rough skin, and her strange smiles were always a balm to him.

-- FIN --