Title: the art of breathlessness
Author: Serendipity1
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Rating: R
Pairing: Mai/Zuko
Original Prompt: Mai/Zuko -- knifeplay; he's never trusted anyone this much before.
Summary: Zuko broods about affairs of state in the courtyard. Mai can't help but notice the brooding and offers comfort in the form of daggers to the throat during sex. Prompt from het_idcrack.
Warnings: Uh. I don't think there's anything triggering that isn't shown in the prompt.

The most comfortable time during Fire Nation summer is the dusk, in the cool just before evening.

It's when the terra cotta tiles of patios and courtyards are still shedding the warmth of the sun's white-hot touch, the breeze holds the soft whisper of night's chill, when the crickets slowly begin their whistling, woodwind sonatas among the tall grasses and softly-lit palace gardens.

So here he is, in the secluded, grassy area that contains the turtleduck pond, wearing as little as possible: a half-open, short-sleeved shirt without even a sash to lend a sense of propriety, and short cotton trousers, the kind he would wear to a beach outing. Dyed a startling vermillion to denote royalty, of course, but still woefully inadequate as far as current fashion goes.

It's not the fashion for nobility to wear the flimsy things the less-exalted members of the Nation tend to escape into when the weather becomes too hot to bear the heavy weight of silk embroidery. Apparently, in the minds of whoever it is that decides on the clothing trends for this country, nobles are a superior breed of human and aren't bothered by petty things such as heat, which is why they're forced to parade around in full-body regalia wherever they go.

Still, all things considered, Zuko figures he can probably get away with a breach of sartorial etiquette if only because he's pretty much blown all the other rules to smithereens in the process of his ascent to the throne. Compared to high treason, acceptance of the subversive rebel element, and supreme failure to raze the world to the ground in his country's best interest, a simple wardrobe faux pas would be as nothing. At least, that's what he's hoping.

Besides, he thinks, he's the Fire Lord. If someone wants to come harass him over his overly-casual attire, he can just pull rank.

"Hmmm," Mai says, dryly, from just beyond his shoulder, "It is this week's second day. I guess that means we're due for another game of morally outraging the help. I don't know, Zuko, there's going to be a mutiny."

She slips past the sliding door, in full-length silk robes done in regal black and red. Mai is an aristocrat born and bred, and so she has long ago mastered the art of traveling in stifling, neck-high attire without looking the slightest bit affected. It's almost enchanting to watch her sometimes, see the way she slips in and out of his vision, to watch the smooth, subtle, but most of all deliberate motions of her body. The way her hands linger an exact, measured amount, the slight quirk of the lips that is her sign of pleasure, the faint crinkle in the delicate skin around her eyes when she looks at him.

Now she arches one precise eyebrow at him and his utter lack of response. "Thoughtful tonight?"

"Mm," he replies indistinctly. Thoughtful isn't the word. Really, he's just tired.

Tired to the bones of interpreting, worrying, planning, and trying to keep an unbalanced nation from turning destructively outwards or inwards- imploding in a faint whisper, or exploding in a brush fire.

Tired of playing the diplomat when, really, he never had it in him to speak anything but his own mind.

Word games frustrate Zuko at the best, and at the worst he can't even begin to understand them. The Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation are both such forward countries: one aggressive, one tactless by nature, but the nobility all seem to enjoy going against their element's natural leanings to play the heady, thrilling contest that is political conversation. He can be tied into a trap of words and phrases and delicately phrased nuances without even being aware of it- and often has. The obvious conclusion is that this isn't his forte. Not this, verbal sparring, but this, ruling.

Zuko thinks he's honestly not a very good Fire Lord. It's not a pleasant thought, but it is very true.

The problem is, he's also probably the best they have at the moment. That's not a good thought for a such a peaceful night, but it's what crosses through his mind. The nation could do much better than him, if they could only find much better.

Sometimes he wonders about Lu Ten, falling into the ashes of the ruined troops at Ba Sing Se, wonders how the job of Fire Lord would have been shaped by his cousin's hands. Iroh's son might have been- no, must have been more talented at the political aspect of leadership as well as able to handle the tactical issues of ruling an empire that still leave Zuko cold. He's too attached to use tactics. He can not break people down into numbers, even when he should.

This is what being a good ruler means: that he is lord over the hundreds and he must see with a wider, greater vision- see the people and their land in calculations, view the consequences of the present with an eye that looks forward. He is not allowed the luxury of attachment.

Zuko still can only see in singular, narrowing his gaze to the sunflower fields and the boys who miss their brothers. It slows him down, he thinks. He's still caught up in the hope that he can trace the fall of every sparrow, because he won't allow himself the belief that some people don't have to be crucial. And that's a good mindset for a healer or even a general, but not for any kind of king.

This country has lost their war, but perhaps they truly lost when their true heir was taken down in enemy lands.

These are the thoughts that slip through his mind at the heart of Fire Nation summer.

Mai sits beside him, neatly settling her dress.

She sits like a silk fan slowly folding, like an origami crane being set into shape, panel by panel. Her hands are milk-pale in the light of the moon, just the barest fingernail of silver in the dusk-orange sky, and it's very beautiful. He watches her just out of the corner of his eye.

Zuko has never been one for watching, really. He gets bored easily, and the patience games his sister plays can't hold him for very long. Still, he thinks he could get used to watching Mai for hours if that's what it takes to truly take her in.

With some people, it's easy to get the full measure of their personality within instants of greeting them. They're broad, basic personalities, like paintings done in thick color and bright pigments, sweeping brushstrokes and wide canvases.

Mai, though, is like a watercolor- thin panes of watery tints layered one after the other, blending in and out. She brushes past people without touching them. He likes that, for some reason. Likes being with someone who doesn't weigh him down with their hopes, their dreams, their past. He likes being with someone who won't stake a claim on him. Not this girl, this woman, who is contained in herself- who goes through life without the life of another making an impression on her soul.

Mai can take him or leave him, but he can never ruin her.

"I'm useless at this," he tells her. He's not exactly sure what he's referring to at the moment, even. Either way, it's sure to be correct- he tends to be fairly useless at a whole range of things.

Since Mai has never been minded to be a very sympathetic person, she simply nods, her lip slanting upwards. "You are," she agrees, "What are we complaining about tonight?"

"I don't know," he groans, covering his eyes with his hands for a moment. He gestures at the palace, lying implacably and indomitably there, circling them like a dragon 'round its prey, "This. Fire Lording. It's awful. I can never be good enough."

Mai lets out a whistling sigh and leans into him, her body a soothing, warm weight against his shoulder.

He takes a moment to appreciate it: lithe, muscled and athletic. A body like that has no room for anything but resistance, all curving, carved lines done in muscle and flesh. Long, slender legs and arms that tangle well with his, milk-white skin that seems far too easy to mark and bruise. It doesn't, really, but he runs his hands over her carefully, the pads of his fingers tracing the curves of her breasts, the smooth column of her neck, like he expects to see burn marks when he lifts his hands.

Zuko brings his mind quickly back to the present when she starts speaking.

"Let's see," she says in that half-amused drone, "The Fire Lord before you was Azula. She banished most of the staff and tried to get some non-benders to challenge each other to an Agni Kai."

"She was unstable," he tries to argue through his smirk. It's not something he's especially proud of, but hearing about the lunatic exploits of his previously-genius little sister can't help but amuse him, if only ironically. How the mighty have fallen.

"Mmhm. She would have burned their precious Earth Kingdom to the ground, though, crazy or not, just like the other three Fire Lords before her. Those diplomats don't have any right to complain so much about your methods."

Zuko rubs the bridge of his nose. "Right. That would be a perfect thing to tell them. 'You're lucky I don't raze your country to the ground.'"

It's easy to forget how much Mai is Fire Nation- born of people who displaced rightful Earth rulers, spreading the Age of Fire through the world. Easy to forget how firmly her loyalties lie with her country, how difficult it is to pry those loyalties away when it's clear that the beloved regime is doing wrong.

She shrugs. "So don't say it. It's still true. The best ruler those other leaders could hope for is you. Anyone else wouldn't give them the time of day."

"And the Fire Nation?"

Mai doesn't answer at first. She slips her hand to the ties holding her hair and takes them out with careful precision. Those fingers, elegant and thin-boned, expressive in a way her own face is not, tightly grip the silk cords. "I won't tell you how to rule your people," she says at last.

It's not the approval he needs, not that he expects it. It's something that is, if not just as good, at least reassuring. Acceptance, silent and trusting, that he can be relied on to do what is best for them. Even if it goes against what their people have been doing for a century. That she has enough faith in him for this is striking, a relief almost like a physical blow. He lets out a short breath, a fractured sound.

It didn't go unnoticed. "Expected another answer?" she asks, "I'm not a ruler, Zuko. I don't think I can care enough for that." He tries to interject with a defense, with some kind of reassurance, and she shrugs him away, "No, I know myself well enough. I don't care about people, strangers or family. I think I was born with a limited supply of love. I can only care about so many people before I feel stretched out. Apathetic."

When he glances next to him to see it, Mai's face is like cold stone in the last, dusky purples and faded crimsons of the setting sun.

"I've seen enough of your father and Azula to think that our ruler should have some kind of affection for the people, even if I can't fathom feeling it myself," she says, turning to face him.

There's something behind her eyes now, a hardness, an implacability. This is the girl who was left to rot in a prison by her friend and by her lover. This is what's left of the quiet girl from his childhood, who he left behind in exile before he ever abandoned her for the Avatar. He wonders how much of that emotion was quelled and crushed under the dictatorship masked as friendship that Azula gave to her.

"I'm sorry," he says, quietly. He should have been there, more. He should have taken her with him.

Mai huffs. "Always so quick to take the blame. Don't be. I've always been this way, and I have no regrets. I'm not like the rest of you people, always going crazy over every little thing. It doesn't matter to me, Zuko. Whether you succeed in your attempts to bring 'honor' back to this country or not, it doesn't matter. That's not why I'm here."

She presses him down into the well-tended grass, soft and crisp and cool from the care and water the palace staff gift it with. His elbows scrape against dirt and plant and yes, there will be swathes of crushed green on his bare skin, not that he particularly cares at the moment. Mai imposes herself with little regard for her clothing, her layered skirts separating as she straddles his hips, her hair parting and falling around her shoulders in a stiff, black curtain.

"Even if you burned everything down around us, I'd still be by your side," she whispers, the heat of her breath tickling the side of his face. "Even if tomorrow, the whole nation rose against you and they wanted your head on a platter."

"If I fail," he says, his breath hitching in his throat because her thighs are pressed tightly against the sides of his legs and her lips are so close.

"You tried. I can't tell you whether you're the best or not and I can't be your moral compass." She gives an unladylike snort, "I wouldn't have been so close with Azula if I was any sort of moral compass. I would have sold out my baby brother's safety for nothing. But I won't judge you, Zuko. And I won't leave you."

Like you left me.

This is what they have in common, really: their life is built around and shaped by people who have left them on the edges of their thoughts. Zuko's life is full of people speaking in whispers and disappearing into the darkness, Mai's is full of borders and limits and parents who think of things in representations, a family portrait.

He tilts his head up, tries to catch her mouth in his, and she leans back enough to keep herself out of reach, catching his wrists. Zuko lets her do it, lets her wrap his arms above his head, his elbows bent, her eyes flickering triumph and laughter at him.

"What I'd do for an apple right now," she says in a husky, low mumble, and he chuckles.

"I thought we were even."

"Maybe I just like seeing you fall down," she replies, almost acerbically, almost lovingly, and presses a kiss against his neck, along the line of his jaw, in the smooth hollow of his throat. He arches upward into her touch, and she keeps pressure on his wrists- an unspoken command. No touching. Zuko obeys to some degree, but can't help trying to allow flesh to touch flesh, shifting his legs and bucking his hips up, jostling her.

"Don't move," she says, a quiet command issued with an eyebrow arch that must have taken her years to perfect. It's perfect and quelling and regal and he can not help but admire the effect as she leaves his wrists above his head, linked there with nothing but his will and her desire.

To her credit, Mai doesn't so much as glance at the entrances to the small courtyard before she sets forth to be rid of her clothing. The process isn't nearly as time-consuming as it looks like it should be- the whole thing seems to be made of easily-detached smaller articles, just as the skirt itself is designed to allow movement and dexterity.

"In case of emergencies," she says dryly, catching his glance and understanding the meaning behind it.

He wonders exactly what kind of emergency would require the immediate shedding of her clothing before she takes off her sash and drapes it, teasingly, across his face. His muscles tense automatically, his wrists uncrossing as he prepares to push himself up, but she lays a hand against his chest and pushes his firmly back down.

"Relax," she says, quietly.

Easy enough to say, but he is in the middle of a palace full of discontented people in a land of discontented people, and assassination attempts are more than common.

She caresses him, the edges of her long nails sliding lightly over his bared skin. "Trust me."

That stops him. After everything, she deserves at least his trust.

"I do," he says, and his voice sounds harsh and raw and strange in this silence. Always. It's important for her to know that, somehow. He trusts her, and not just with his life.

"But not to protect you?" she says, practically. "Or not to kill you myself?"

The words are punctuated with the cold kiss of metal against his throat, sending a sharp prickle down his spine, arching his back from the tickle of the grassy ground. Mai plays with the dagger- undoubtedly one of the many she has concealed on her person, the blade flat against his throat, the edges barely touching his skin. She holds it with all the care of the master she is, teasing the blade along the edge of his jawline in a pantomime- cutting his throat without breaking the skin.

There's a knife to his throat and no fear in him, he marvels, as his adrenaline spikes from the contact. She could very easily find a vein there, sever an artery and leave him to bleed himself out. For some reason, there was nothing more arousing than this- his life offered up to her hands. It's not that he trusts her to be gentle with it, but he knows she won't make that final cut.

You turned against Azula for me.

"I told you I won't leave you," she says, "So do you trust me, even knowing what you know about my feelings?" She smells good, he realizes suddenly, like woodsmoke and musk and heady, heavy jasmine.

"Yes," he says, in a voice like a groan as her fingers undo the belt at his waist.

Mai keeps her weapons sharp, balanced, perfect. She adjusts it, lays the cold edge to exposed flesh and his pulse races in response.

"I could take your life," she says, her voice betraying nothing, and all he sees is darkness.

A breath, shaking as her fingers brush below his navel. "You won't."

"You're sure?"

"Yes." He's sure. It amazes him. He's never trusted anyone this much.

Then again, Mai is one of the only people in his life who has never made a move to hurt him.

He can hear the smile in her voice. "Good." That thrill of cold steel is withdrawn, and he feels a shiver of disappointment before she tugs her fingers in the collar of his loose shirt and there's a sound- not ripping or tearing, but slow and whisperingly soft. Her dagger slices through the silk of his shirt like it's insubstantial as air, exposing his skin. It takes very little time at all to cut him free of his shirt, and he spares not a thought for the undoubtedly expensive fabric when she licks a line from collarbone to navel.

Water Tribe culture views bare skin as defenselessness, nakedness as helplessness. Not the Fire Nation. Agni Kai are fought with as much of the body displayed as possible because the body shows the strength of the bender, the power they wield. There is no shame in bare bodies in this land of heat, not for ceremony, not for battle. Not in love.

Mai lets the dagger's edge slip along his skin as she slices, and the sting as it scratches him adds an edge to sensation- her hips bearing down on his as he shifts under her, the softness of her thigh where it rubs against his own bare leg. Her lips sliding along his neck, her teeth nipping gently at his lower lip when they finally kiss. They kiss like breathing after a long time underwater- roughly, quickly, in desperation.

"Tell me if you want to stop," she mumbles into his neck, and he shakes his head. He's silent because there's nothing he can say that he won't cheapen with his stumbling attempts at speech. There's no room for words here, in the dark, in the new nightfall. He's silent, gasping and straining at his self control. Hard not to move his arms to try and pull her down closer, to cup her small breasts and press his fingers into her hips.

Then she pushes the rest of his clothing away without a word and sheathes him in one slow, fluid movement, and there's nothing but physical sensation to focus on when his vision has been cut away.

Nothing but the drumbeat of his pulse in his ears, the quickness of his breath, the way the world swims and narrows into points of gold-and-white. The orgasm hits him like a rapid flood of heat- razor sharp and edged, and he bites his lip bloody to keep from crying out and alerting an erstwhile guard.

And she takes off his blindfold, and the stars never seemed so bright.

"We'll have to think of a way to explain you to the servants," she says, afterglow-smug and smirking. "A half-naked Fire Lord is hard to ignore."

"It's amazing how much I don't care," he says, and she laughs.