Title: The First Knot
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Word Count: 3,400
Summary/Description: They were seventeen and young, and they were starting, together.
Warning/Spoilers: Spoilers for Finale. Zuko's dorky lines. :3
A/N: Written for Rawles for the "Kind of Like You" Maiko Fic Exchange on LJ. Post-canon, different scenes showing progression.
Thanks to: Ali Wildgoose, for the quick, very effective beta. You were so much help! Also to Essy and Ingrid, for helping me get over that massive stretch of writer's block, and playing my little writing game with me.
Disclaimer: I do not own ATLA.
"Is this really necessary?" Mai deadpanned, and shifted closer to Zuko so that she could use his shoulder as a cushion for her head. Her voice was soft and hollow in the vastness of the throne room.
"Yeah, sorry," Zuko whispered back a little distractedly, eyes still flitting between the scroll in his hand and the soldiers before them. His arm tightened around her waist. "I've gotta be debriefed on how the rebuilding is going in the Earth Nation, and whatever Fire Nation towns were affected. It's gonna take a while, but afterwards, we can—"
"No, no, I know your little war meetings are important. I was talking about this." Mai waved a hand negligently to the impressive wall of shifting orange flames that separated them from the soldiers. It danced and crackled and leapt, illuminating the room and giving off waves of heat. "It's putting a lot of space between you and… those guys." A nod to the soldiers. "Plus, it's hot."
Zuko looked a little perplexed for a couple seconds, and Mai tilted her head to appreciate the look and be slightly amused.
"Well… it's tradition, I guess. The Fire Lord's throne room has been like this for a long time, at least a century."
Mai slipped a dagger out of her pocket, and leaned against Zuko some more.
"Uh huh. And isn't it also tradition for the Fire Lord to be alone behind his great wall of flame?" A flick of her wrist had the dagger flipping into the air, spinning and pivoting on the descent.
"Um," Zuko said, and paused.
Mai sighed, sounding slightly exasperated.
"You're the Fire Lord, Zuko. I'm pretty sure you can do whatever you want. And I'm pretty sure they won't mind." Once again, a hand gestured to the soldiers. "Right now, it's not doing any of us any good."
"Well," he said, voice suddenly dropping to a low pitch as he ran a finger down her cheek, "your skin does look really beautiful in the orange glow."
Mai cocked an eyebrow at him, and hid her smile very carefully.
Zuko grinned, shrugged, and turned away from her. With a wave of his hand, the flames dropped, tempered to a low, cheerful crackling.
"Much better," Mai said, and the dagger spun into the air again. Zuko pressed his fingers into her waist, and out of the corner of her eye, she could see that he was still smiling when he turned back to listen to the general.
"Princess! Princess! Please wait!"
Mai walked faster, and idly twirled a throwing star around a finger. The guy had been following her around the gardens for the past five minutes, and didn't seem to be bothered at all by the fact that she was steadfastly ignoring him. She didn't know who he was, and didn't really care. She and Zuko had planned to meet at the fountain at noon, and she wasn't in the mood to be waylaid.
"Please, Princess, I just need to—"
"Go away or I'll call the guards," she said in a monotone, not bothering to turn around. "And I'm not a princess," she added a few seconds later, frowning.
"Please, it is very important." The man sounded tired and out of breath; good. Maybe he would collapse soon. "I am seeking an audience with—"
"Fire Lord Zuko. Wow. I didn't see that coming." Mai finally glanced behind her, taking in her follower. He was a soldier – a low-ranking one, by his dress – and stocky, red in the face. She blinked once before facing forward again. The throwing star made a light whirring noise as it spun. "Seek an audience through the regular channels."
"And I'm guessing there must be a reason you failed. You're boring me," she said lightly, and narrowed her eyes. "Go away."
She continued walking, the metal dancing and jumping around her fingers, but the man wasn't giving up. He had been maintaining his distance before, perhaps out of some notion of respect, but he forwent that now to run up to her and lay a hand on her shoulder.
Which she immediately shrugged off, hard. She spun on him with pins in her eyes.
"Now you're just being annoying," she warned, and her hands crept into her sleeves. She didn't honestly have any intention of fighting him here in the garden, not when she had to go meet Zuko in a few minutes, but this idiot was quickly getting on her nerves.
"Please," he pleaded, taking a few steps back. "You have to understand. It's about the Earth Kingdom soldiers!"
Mai frowned, and relaxed by the barest inch. This might actually be important.
"What about them?" she asked crisply.
The man, who had been agitated looking and nervous all along, seemed to calm down a little now that he had her attention. He stood up straighter, chest out, and this time, when he spoke, there was a tremble of anger in his voice.
"There are Earth Kingdom soldiers here on our land, Princess."
Mai watched him unblinkingly for a few seconds to see if he planned on continuing, and then sighed. Of course it had turned out to be a complete waste of her time. She withdrew her hands from her sleeves and glared at the man.
"Yes. There have been for the past few months. Because the Fire Lord wants them here." She turned on her heel and started walking again.
She was prepared this time, when he reached for her again. She spun, grabbed his wrist, and had him pinned against the leafy wall of the garden within seconds. He was really getting annoying.
"Not sure if you noticed, but I answered you. Now, you need to go."
The soldier looked her unwaveringly in the eye. Blurting out what he had to say had seemingly given him a boost of confidence. He was no longer restless and worrisome at all; he looked mad, and was getting angrier by the second. Mai wasn't particularly impressed.
"I'm afraid I cannot do that, Princess, until the Fire Lord has been told about the imminent threat to our nation!" He clenched his fists, breathing hard, but made no real effort to get out of her hold. He seemed to think he had her attention now. Mai rolled her eyes.
"Threat to our nation? From a troop of Earth Kingdom soldiers who've come to collect supplies for rebuilding? Are you even listening to yourself?" Mai released his wrists and stepped back a few feet. "The world is at peace, and if there's any threat to the Fire Nation, it's not going to come from half-starved Earthbenders here to collect supplies."
The soldier didn't seem to be listening to her anymore; his eyes were wide and fierce, and he was breathing heavily.
"No… no, Princess. They're scum. All of them. They'll turn on all of us, and we'll be unprepared. We need to get them before they get us!" The look in his eyes was manic and crazed. "The Fire Nation is the most glorious and powerful of the Four Nations. We can't allow them to trick us! We must stop them!"
He started forward, arm outstretched, but Mai had a dagger out in no time at all. She watched him boredly, and a little curiously.
She of course, knew that there were some like this. Those who refused to believe that the Fire Nation had given up on the war; that they were now living in peace with the other nations that they had terrorised for over a century. Most of the citizens' loyalty lay infallibly with the Fire Lord, but some were refusing to follow Zuko, citing him as a traitor. Zuko's uncle had taken the worst of the fanatics and was 'taking care of them', whatever that meant. (Knowing General Iroh, though, he was probably force feeding them tea.) It was obvious that one of the crazily patriotic had slipped through the cracks.
For Mai, the whole thing was simple, and boiled down to bare facts. The Avatar was a pretty strong kid, and it would have been pointless to fight him. He had taken down Fire Lord Ozai, the most powerful bender in the world. And more than that, Mai had realised that it was more than past time to put love and loyalty before reason and fear. Zuko was complicated, and strong and volatile, and a jerk, and she loved him. That was never going to change, and she didn't want it to.
And besides, peace was a whole lot less annoying than war.
She considered the soldier in front of her. He was still ranting away, talking about the evils of the Earth Nation, what garbage they were, how they were in league with the Water Tribes, blah blah, and for a moment or two, she almost felt sorry for him. The war had twisted many people in many ways, and the Fire Nation wasn't ever going to be the same again, not for a long time.
But that was what Zuko was there for.
"Guards," Mai called out, putting away her weapons. She'd had enough of this, and her boyfriend was waiting.
"The war is over," she told him blandly as the Imperial Guard came running. "Get over it."
The soldier's eyes widened, as if in disbelief.
"But—you must! You must allow me to tell him! The evils they are plotting!" He was almost snarling now, and it was a little taxing, watching him froth at the mouth like a moose-lion. Mai let the guards handle him, and told the leading officer to make sure that the soldier got some help.
Zuko was sitting on the bench when she got there. A few turtle-ducks had waddled out of the pond, and were pecking at the ground near his feet. He didn't even seem to notice; he stared at the sky thoughtfully.
She smiled softly, because she hadn't seen Zuko brood in some time. The grass rustled and shifted beneath her feet as she made her way up behind him, but he still didn't seem to take note of her presence. She was still smiling when she bent down and wrapped her arms around him from behind.
"Hey," she said, and pressed a kiss to his temple, scar tissue rough beneath her lips. He looked up immediately, and Mai could feel her heart skip a beat. She wondered idly if it would ever stop doing that. She wasn't counting on it.
"Hey," he said in reply, his smile coming slow and easy over his face. He reached round so that he could pull her into his arms, onto the bench. "What took you so long?"
Her smile eased, and she touched a hand gently to his face. She knew that Zuko had a lot of annoying things ahead of him. That guy was probably the least of his problems to come. But she knew that he would overcome it. He had overcome so much more, in himself.
She kissed his lips, softly.
"I was giving you time to do your quota of brooding for the day. And now that that's done…"
Zuko grinned. "I can start taking the recommended dosage of 'time with my girlfriend'?"
She smirked. "Sure. Why not."
They didn't bother to lower their voices. Mai didn't care about what they had to say; she just wished they would keep it to themselves. The evening was quiet and still, and the boisterous sounds irritated her.
Zuko had fallen asleep in her lap a while ago. He'd had a long day, full of administrative meetings, counsels about the war reconstruction effort, visits from his generals and advisors, and to top it all off, a conversation with Azula. Mai had let him talk some of it out, before finding a more interesting use for his mouth.
He'd laid his head to rest in her lap, and she stroked his hair gently, listening to him breathe. She knew exactly when he fell asleep; his breathing evened out, his body relaxed and sagged, and his thumb stopped tracing circles on her knee. She didn't mind. It was peaceful out here on the lawn.
The only downside was that they were on the outside of a war room filled with loud, drunken soldiers.
Zuko had left the meeting there an hour ago, as had most of the other generals ad advisors. Those who stayed behind had had drinks brought to them, and it was quickly dulling their senses and loosening their tongues.
Words and phrases like 'only children', 'spoilt', 'erratic temper' and 'bland' floated down to her as she ran her fingers through Zuko's hair. They were sluiced with laughter and derisive grunts; choked with scoffs and uncertainty.
Mai almost smirked, to think that only hours before, they had been bowing down to Zuko, reporting to him, and following his every order. Their duplicity didn't surprise her, it only amused her. Tomorrow they would call her 'Princess' and she would tell them not to, and around and around they would go.
Zuko stirred, and she wished again that the men inside would be quiet.
It was expected, of course, to a certain extent. She and Zuko were seventeen and young, and youth always meant inexperience to people like the old, stodgy generals and advisors who were downing drink after drink in the war room. In a few months, she would be married; she would be the Fire Lord's wife. Her hands trembled a little, and she smiled just to think of it. The fact that she would be wedded to the ruler of the Fire Nation didn't really concern her; she would be married to Zuko.
And they, those few men in the war room who stayed late and drank deep, those that didn't see further than their crooked noses, they would watch and stare and criticise, because they were old and wizened, and saw nothing but a pair of teenagers with a job and duties too huge for them to surmount.
She looked forward to proving them wrong.
The orange glow of the sun sank and sank beneath in horizons in the distance, turning everything around it to fire, setting water and land ablaze. More words drifted out of the war room to her ears; words like 'too young', and 'too green' and 'too much to handle'.
It didn't bother her. She wished that they would shut up, perhaps, but as she stroked Zuko's hair and watched the sun set, she found that their voices faded far into the background.
Mai's only warning was a shriek and a green blur, before Ty Lee came crashing into her and enveloped her in a tight hug. Mai rolled her eyes, exasperated, but hugged her friend back, hiding a smile behind her sleeve. It had been four months since she last saw Ty Lee, and nothing had changed.
"Mai!" she exclaimed, and drew her friend to sit on the steps leading into the palace. She clasped their hands together and grinned. "It's so good to see you!"
"You didn't say you were coming," Mai said dryly, and allowed Ty Lee to gush for a minute or so. "And it's good to see you, too," she said when she could get a word in.
"Oh sorry, I didn't get time to send word." She didn't look contrite at all, and her dimples pushed deep into her cheeks. Mai didn't comment. "But travelling with the Kyoshi warriors has been so much fun! They do all sorts of amazing things, Mai, I wish you could come and see and join us. If only to get to see you in bright make-up and colours again," she teased, grinning.
"Not happening," Mai deadpanned, but the smile was there in her voice. Ty Lee's own make-up was a little smudged, and her hair out of place. She looked happy.
"You look happy, Mai!" Ty Lee said in the next second. "Your skin is glowing, your hair is shiny, and your aura is this really pretty purplish red colour." A sly sort of grin. "Looking forward to the wedding?"
Mai shrugged, and glanced at the ground, managing a nonchalant look. Absently, she touched the bracelet at her wrist.
"Sure, I guess."
Ty Lee inched closer to her, almost smirking.
"Your aura doesn't say, 'I guess'," she chirped as she slung an arm around Mai's shoulder. "Oh, I can't believe that you're going to be a married woman!"
Mai was still looking at the ground, and this time, she couldn't quite hide her smile.
"Yeah. I am."
She knocked once before pushing open the door, and entering the Fire Lord's chambers. The room was dark and quiet, and strangely still, as if the world all around them had taken a very deep breath, and held it. The torches were barely lit, their flames flickering with every tiny gust of wind. What little light there was came from the tall, wide windows, where moonlight pierced the glass and streamed in, colouring the room with its pearl hues.
Zuko sat near the windows, on the ground. He looks up and smiled immediately upon seeing Mai.
"Hey," he said softly, when she was a few feet away.
"Hey," she replied, and sank to her knees beside him. They looked at each other for a moment. Zuko's eyes bore into hers, and it was the intensity of his gaze that said so much without having to say anything at all that made her catch her breath slightly, and let it out on a slow, quiet sigh. Her hand searched out his, and when she found it, she grasped tightly.
Together, they looked at the window, up at the moon.
"It's beautiful," Zuko murmured thoughtfully. Mai arched a brow in his direction, but decided to humour him.
"Yeah, I suppose." She curled her fingers though his, intertwining them. His hands were very warm; he squeezed her palm lightly.
He seemed lost in thought for a few moments, and then he grinned suddenly, and turned to her. "Not as beautiful as you, though."
She raised her brows a little, but her eyelids were already dropping closed as she tilted up into the kiss that he leaned down to give. His mouth was warm, too. His hand cupped her cheek as they kissed, languid and careful, as if they had all the time in the world and then some. His thumb drew lines across her cheekbone, and she could feel his other arm winding around her waist to draw her near. She smiled against his lips, and pressed closer, fingers finding their way to the roots of his hair.
When they pulled away, his eyes were dark and shining.
He hugged her ever closer, so that she almost sat on his lap. She didn't mind; it was very comfortable from where she was sitting.
"One month away, huh," he said, staring down at her.
"Yup. One month," she confirmed.
He gave a short laugh.
"I can't really believe that seven months have already passed… And you're still here." Zuko inclined his head. "Does that mean you still like me?"
Mai raised a brow, and looked up at him from under her lashes. The expression on his face was thoughtful, almost pensive. She sighed very softly before answering.
"Maybe. I think it means I kind of love you."
She didn't look to see what his reaction to that was. She knew, from the way he stopped breathing for a second, and the way both his arms came to wrap around her, and the way he pressed his forehead to hers, and the way he stumbled over his next words.
"I… Mai, I—"
"I know," she said.
This time, she curled a hand around his neck to bring him down to kiss her. His hands smoothed over her hair, a short caress, before one came to rest against the curve of her shoulder, and the other along her spine. She felt her heart beating hard, and she pressed her fingers into his neck, near his pulse, just to feel it, too. She had never felt warmer in her entire life. His mouth roved over hers, and when she gasped, just a little, so did he. Breath flowed from one to the other like a lifeline.
I love you too, he breathed, and Mai didn't hear it, but she knew it.
A/N: Hope you enjoyed, Rawles.