Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, or the world. I don't even own the idea behind this one-shot.
A/N: This story came from a conversation on the ASN shipping thread (as many of my ideas do). You see, it turns out that there was some Maiko in the original Avatar script that never made it to the show...a storyline where a young Mai once gave Zuko a heart-shaped lava rock as a gift, and he kept that rock with him during his banishment to remember her. All references to this were cut from the end product...but myself and a few other Maiko fans couldn't help mourning the loss of such a cool idea. So that's why I wrote this one-shot.
"Hi little guy. Come on, a little closer. I brought you a whole roll this time. That's right, it's okay…"
Zuko nearly pitched face first into the turtleduck pond. As it was, his hand slipped and splashed into the shallows. He looked up, utterly mortified, a fourteen year old found talking to a turtleduck.
Mai looked uncertain, pausing next to the old willow tree and looking down at him. Zuko scrambled into a sitting position, trying to ignore the steady quacking of the turtleduck behind him, who seemed to be laughing at his embarrassment.
"M-M-Mai…" Zuko stammered out. "Um, do you need something?"
"Is this a bad time?" asked Mai, and he was suddenly aware that what might have been a smile was hovering over her mouth. He couldn't decide whether he should be relieved that she was smiling.
"No, of course not…" Zuko stood up, brushing loose grass off his pants. "What is it?"
"Well, nothing much…" Now Mai's slight smile had been replaced by a nervous look, and now she appeared to be the embarrassed one, although Zuko couldn't see why. "I just wanted to…to…well…give you something."
Zuko swallowed slightly, wondering if it was humanly possible to stop yourself from blushing. He could feel it warming up his neck now. Mai…offering him something? A gift?
"I don't really know why I even thought of it…" She was offhand now, even cool. But then, that was how she usually covered her emotions.
Zuko approached her, subtly trying to dry off his wet hand on his tunic. Up closer, he could see that she was blushing too. Inwardly, he cursed. Why was it suddenly so awkward? He thought he'd gotten past this with the walks in the courtyard, the invitations to watch his firebending practice. He'd thought they could begin to relax around each other. But now, the simple mention of a gift was throwing them both completely out of whack.
"I just thought you might appreciate it…you know, more than Ty Lee or Azula anyway." Mai still wouldn't meet his eyes. "Well…here."
Very quickly, with the astonishing speed that she seemed to be honing lately, Mai's hand shot out and pressed something into a surprised Zuko's hand. Then she stepped back, her usually pale face very red.
He looked down at what she had given him.
It was a rock…that was his first impression. A childhood of growing up with Azula meant that the first thing that leapt to his mind was that this was all some prank. Then his fingers shaped themselves around it and he took a closer look. It was a dark, ashy black in color, and it had a distinct form. He turned it in his hand, trying to puzzle out was it was…
Meanwhile, Mai had started to babble, which wasn't something she normally did at all. "I found it on our last vacation to Ember Island. There was supposed to be some old volcano there, and I found this, so I guess it must be some kind of lava rock. I stuck it in our fire to make it harder and shinier, but I chipped the edges off so it would look a little more like…you know…"
Zuko gave the rock one more half-turn in his palm, and the shape resolved itself.
It was a heart.
He could hardly believe it, but the shape was unmistakable now. He smoothed his thumb along the surface of the thing. The full implications of this were sinking in now. Mai had given him a gift…a gift shaped like a heart. Agni curse blushes that you couldn't control!
He tried to think of something to say. Finally, he teased weakly, "So, does this mean you think I have a heart of stone or something?"
Mai looked up in alarm, then seemed to realize he was joking. She shook her head, strands of her sleek black hair escaping from their buns and falling across her face. Zuko experienced a sudden, insane urge to brush the strands back.
"No. Actually, when I picked it up, I was thinking more…" Mai paused, and for the first time actually looked him in the eyes, although it was a shy glace for someone who was usually fairly direct with him. "I was thinking more like, a heart of fire."
Zuko stiffened. He hadn't expected that kind of reply to his half-hearted attempt to lighten the situation. Now he couldn't think of anything to say.
Neither, apparently, could Mai. She half-turned, as if she were going to leave. "Well, that's it, really…"
"Mai!" Her name burst out of him; he couldn't remember thinking about saying it, just that he suddenly didn't want her to leave. "Um…thank you." It sounded stupid and inadequate in his ears. "It…I'll keep it. It reminds me of you, too." Oh perfect. Now why had he said that? Now he had to find a way to justify it. "It's dark…" So flattering. "And smooth…and…strong…" He couldn't read Mai's expression, couldn't tell if she was insulted or confused or something completely different. "And…I think you have a heart of fire too. Even if you aren't…well…a firebender." Nice job pointing out the obvious there. "I'll keep it," he finished lamely.
He might have been imagining it, but he could have sworn that her tiny smile was back. So maybe she didn't hate him.
"You're welcome, I guess." That sounded a little more like the Mai he knew, and he relaxed a little as she began turning to leave again.
Suddenly, she paused, as if deliberating. And then, before he could move or speak again, she had darted back, again moving with that incredible swiftness. Quickly, clumsily, she placed one hand on his shoulder, a pressure that only lasted a second. And she leaned forward and kissed him, not quite his cheek and not quite his mouth.
The feeling that shot down Zuko's spine was like a blush, but one that had been magnified tenfold. He felt like someone had frozen him to the ground. Something in him wanted to react, but his body seemed to be unable to respond to anything his brain was telling it.
And before he could straighten things out, Mai was gone, walking briskly over the grass with her robe fluttering out behind her. But she glanced once over her shoulder, so he thought maybe she saw the one motion he was able to manage in his paralyzed state of dazed shock.
He clasped the stone heart tightly in his hand, and brought it up until he was pressing it over his shirt in the spot where his real heart was thundering many times faster than its normal rate.
I just want to go home.
His father waited for him there. His nation. His redemption. His honor. Zuko clasped his hands over his bare chest and stared at the Fire Nation banner on the wall. Everything he wanted back was there. Capture the Avatar, and I can have it all back. Family. Acceptance. Power.
Abruptly, Zuko rolled over in his bed so that he was facing the small bedside table, a single candle burning atop it. He unhooked the almost invisible latch for its tiny drawer and reached into it. He did not take out what was inside. He simply let his fingers assure him that it was still there; a smooth black rock in the shape of a heart.
His free hand, almost unconsciously, rose to brush against the corner of his mouth.
Yes…he wanted to be done with this.
Ba Sing Se had fallen. Zuko looked out one of the Earth Kingdom palace's windows over the sleeping city, now the Fire Nation's. He had shed his green outer robe. It reminded him horribly of his uncle…his uncle who was now a prisoner.
But he was going home. Azula had promised. And now he could return home a hero. Home to his father, home to his palace, home to the willows and the turtleduck pond.
And Mai was here. Here in the city.
Zuko picked up the green robe he had cast aside. Turning it over, he found the small inner pocket within its lining, scooping its contents into his hand.
There were a few silver coins, some old tea leaves that nevertheless smelled musty sweet, and a smooth black rock. His old life. Peasant coins and tea leaves. And the heart-shaped rock? Was that his past or his future now?
He pressed the stone to his chest, over his real, beating heart, and held it there. One way or another, he knew he would find out soon.
"What's that, Sifu Hotman?"
"Stop calling me that." It was a reflex now more than a reprimand; the name had stuck, and no one used it with more jibe than the blind earthbender. Zuko concealed the object he'd been toying with under his cupped palm, even though he knew she couldn't actually see it.
It was no use. The girl could sense rock. He shouldn't have taken it out with her around; it was bound to draw attention.
"What are you hiding?" Her voice was sly. "C'mon, it's a rock, that much I can tell. What's so special about it?"
Feeling embarrassed and a little irritated, Zuko turned the stone around so it faced up. "It's nothing," he muttered. "Just a little…keepsake."
"Reminds you of home?" A little of the biting sarcasm had gone out of her voice; she sounded softer now.
"Kind of." Zuko tossed the rock idly from palm to palm. "The only part of home I want to be reminded of, anyway." Then he bit his lip, realizing that was revealing a bit too much.
Too late. "You miss her, huh?" At least she didn't sound like she was teasing at all now. She sounded serious, almost sympathetic.
"I don't know who you're talking about." Zuko didn't know why he was resisting this, playing dumb, only that some part of him was telling him that he'd let Toph get too close to the mark.
Toph didn't give up; she didn't let people play stupid.
"Your girlfriend. You never told us you had a girlfriend. Please tell me she isn't some wishy-washy princess or sappy noble's daughter or something."
"No." He said it without thinking, wanting only to deny Toph's ridiculously wrong conclusions. "She's a warrior. A knife-thrower. She can stick people to walls, knock full-grown soldiers off balance. She's not afraid of anything. She can kick my butt."
"Hey! That gloomy girl who was with Azula? She was a pretty good fighter…y'know, for not being a bender. She doesn't talk much, does she?"
Zuko scowled at her.
"Well, even if she is some dark, knife-throwing warrior, she must have a heart if she's giving you romantic presents," commented Toph.
"Yeah." Zuko gazed down at the rock in his hands and thought of what he had once more left behind. His nation, his father, his palace. These things no longer mattered. But there was one thing that remained the same, one thing he still wanted back.
"A heart of fire," he murmured softly, more to himself than to Toph.
"Mai?" Zuko whispered into the darkness.
He saw her form stir in the shadows of her bed. "Zuko? What are you doing here? Didn't you have kind of a long day? Being crowned Fire Lord and all?"
"I know. I just wanted to…show you something. Can I…come in?"
"Into the room or into the bed?" Mai's bluntness made the heat rise to his face. He could almost see the smug expression on her face. What had happened to both of them blushing and being awkward?
"Just…just the room." Some insanely bold part of him wanted to add, For now.
"Sure." Mai still sounded a little groggy, but he saw her sit up, the sheets still drawn up to her neck. Her hair was loose, falling long and black around her shoulders. Zuko swallowed.
He approached her slowly, still feeling strange. Only today had they been reunited. Only today had he discovered that she still loved him, despite everything.
He reached into his robe pocket. "Look."
"It's dark, Zuko. I can't see whatever it is," Mai reminded him dryly.
"Then here." He caught her hand, cool and soft in his, and passed what he was holding to her.
He heard her catch her breath, and took advantage of it to sit down on the edge of the bed.
For a long moment, there was silence. Zuko let his eyes adjust until he could make out her face in the shadows. But even then, it wore an expression he couldn't fathom. Until he saw the soft glint of moisture in her dark eyes.
"You kept it?" It was a bit of a rhetorical question, the answer was fairly obvious. He nodded anyway.
"Never let it out of my sight." It was true. The small rock heart had been the one object he'd carried on him in one way or another almost every day of his travels. "It was the only thing worth keeping," he said softly, by way of explanation.
More silence. And then, her hand against his scarred cheek.
"Wow. That was pretty sentimental Zuko. I'd never have guessed you of all people would be so sappy."
Zuko's brow knitted in shock. For a second, he couldn't reply. Mai took advantage of this to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him.
She shook her head, but now he could tell she was definitely smiling in the darkness. "I love you, you dumb sentimental sap," she whispered.
"Hey, careful what you call your new Fire Lord." Zuko could hardly believe he was teasing her, but somehow it felt okay now. Besides, he was too dazed with happiness to care otherwise. "I just wanted you to know," he said quietly, sliding off the bed.
"I'm glad," she murmured. "Here." She was holding it out to him. "You've kept it this long. Might as well go for a record."
Almost grinning, Zuko took it back and slid it into his pocket, a warm, familiar weight.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he promised softly, starting slowly toward the mellow gold light that streamed in from the hallway outside.
"You sure you won't be too busy with Fire Lord stuff? It's your first day on the job, Zuko."
"First thing in the morning." Again, he could almost sense her smiling as he passed right over her question as though she had never asked.
"Good night." Her surprisingly tender farewell followed him as he reached the doorway. Zuko stopped with one hand on the doorframe, and then looked over his shoulder, one hand thrust into his pocket to cup the heart-shaped lava rock.
"I'll bring fruit tarts," he said to the shadows behind him, unable to keep a chuckle out of his voice.
And a very rare sound, filled with an unmistakable undertone of loving amusement, came back to him from the form reclining on the bed. It was a sound he decided he really wanted to hear more often.
Mai was laughing.