The little quotes are song lyrics from, in order, "My Skin" by Natalie Merchant, "Tunnel of Love" by Dire Straits, "What You Gave Away" by the One AM Radio, "Days Go By" by Dirty Vegas, "Scratch" by Kendall Payne, "Nightmares by the Sea" by Jeff Buckley, "Speeding Cars" by Imogen Heap, "Over My Head (Cable Car)" by the Fray, "My Manic and I" by Laura Marling, and "Let Down" by Radiohead.
(Boy howdy, formatting on this side is obnoxious. If you want to read this without being attacked by horizontal lines, check out my LJ. The link is on my profile.)
broken love stories
and other assorted failures
(or, ten steps to breaking your own heart)
Contempt loves the silence,
it thrives in the dark,
the fine-winding tendrils that strangle the heart.
He comes back different, a little more distant, a lot more mature -- and all of a sudden, she doesn't quite know him anymore. All the parts are the same, but the configuration is completely alien, and she realizes, one night when she wakes up and the bed is cold and she finds him on the balcony, looking south, she realizes that she no longer fits in his world.
It's... frustrating. She has always been a part of his world, to the point that she knows him -- or, well, the him that he used to be -- better than he knows -- knew -- himself. She can navigate the complicated politics of the Fire Nation court with ease, she can ferret out the liars and the tricksters and the thieves, she survived as Azula's lackey, for Agni's sake! She is the perfect Fire Lady. She is everything he could ever need, but...
She is also nothing that he wants.
She tries, as well as she can. She forces herself to express the emotions he brings about in her, she allows Ty Lee to cut and style her hair into something modern and, her friend insists, sexy. She changes her wardrobe to accommodate this new, more open Mai. She accepts his gifts with gratitude and as much of a smile as she knows how to give. She helps him with all of the work that has fallen on his lap. And yet... nothing. In the night, he doesn't come into her room. The gifts he gives now are more out of propriety than any desire to see her smile.
And always, always, he's looking south. It isn't Mai that he wants, Mai that dreams about, Mai that he yearns for. Bitterness burns inside of her, shocking in its intensity. It isn't fair! She's done everything for him! She -- she -- she cut her hair for him!
She cannot make him see her, no matter what she does. And yet that stupid waterbender can hold his attention from a thousand miles away, without even trying.
I stood, I watched her walk away.
I could have caught up with her easy enough,
but something must have made me stay.
It must seem abrupt, both to him and the court, when she announces that she is returning to Kyoshi Island with Ty Lee, at least for a while. She offers him an invitation to join them, but they both know he'll refuse. The gesture was never meant to be sincere.
Ty Lee knows. It's written all over her face, she knows the reason Mai is going to the small Earth Kingdom Island with her. It's much the same reason Ty Lee went herself -- without Azula there and with Mai supposedly happy in love with the Fire Lord, there was nothing left for Ty Lee at the capital. And now Mai is experiencing the same thing, and she, too, gravitates toward Kyoshi Island, the only place where a woman left alone will be left alone.
"Talk to me," Ty Lee implores, as the boat leaves the harbor. "Tell me what's going on." She places a hand on Mai's shoulder and looks straight into her eyes searchingly, trying to understand, desperate to make things right, because that's what Ty Lee does, she patches up the holes in people's lives, she puts them together and fixes them up and sets them back the way they're supposed to be. But how can Mai explain to her that there is nothing to patch up this time? That her relationship with Zuko -- the boy she's loved since she was a child -- has simply ceased to exist? That nothing happened, no one cheated, and nothing, strictly speaking, is wrong? That it isn't about what's going on, but about what isn't going on?
She can't explain it to Ty Lee because she can't explain it to herself. It's just an ache, a pain so deep in her heart that she couldn't ever express it, even if she knew how to.
So she feigns indifference, and tells Ty Lee that she doesn't know what she's talking about, and that nothing is going on at all, can't she simply visit a friend every now and then? And Ty Lee must see something in her face, because she doesn't push the issue.
The Pacific Northwest coast holds a place I long to see;
an unmarked stretch of beach
tied to your memory.
Kyoshi is, understandably, unsure about Mai. It's to be expected, but it still stings -- the whole island welcomes Ty Lee openly and warmly, but Mai they draw away from, and she's left feeling something akin to jealousy. Ty Lee was hers first, before Kyoshi Island ever entered the picture. Ty Lee is all she has left of her childhood, of her past -- and this place, with the makeup and the fans and the giant koi fish -- this place is trying to steal that from her.
Irrationally, she hates Kyoshi Island. She swallows her hatred hard and tries to smile.
You, you leave me when I'm at my worst
feeling as if I've been cursed,
and bitter cold within.
Fighting with fans is simple, and she takes to it with grace and ease, but learning so quickly has left her with little else to do. So, she spends her days on the beach, watching the waves and trying to piece together a complete image of the Unagi from the glimpses she catches every now and then.
It's like trying to piece together what, precisely, happened to Zuko when he left to join the Avatar. She knows he was accepted into the group somehow, that he ended up in the Boiling Rock prison with the waterbender's brother, and that he and that waterbender faced Azula on the day of the comet. Somewhere between the Boiling Rock, when he looked into her eyes with pity and remorse, and the days following the comet, when he forgot to even free her from prison -- something fundamental about him changed.
Or maybe nothing changed, she thinks, watching the shadows of the koi under the water, maybe something else just came to the surface. Some part of Zuko that she hadn't known.
"Here," Ty Lee says, bringing Mai out of her reverie, and holds out a mango to her. "You haven't eaten breakfast yet, have you?"
"No," Mai replies, and takes the fruit, but doesn't eat it. Ty Lee flops down on the sand next to her, sprawled out and relaxed.
"So..." she says, drawing the syllable out. Mai winces, knowing what's coming. "You wanna talk about it?"
"Not particularly," she says, and looks away. If she faces Ty Lee now, everything she's suppressed will bubble up to the surface, and if there's anything Mai does well, it's keeping emotion under control. And she must keep these emotions under control.
"C'mon, Mai. You've been here for weeks. You haven't made any plans at all to go back to the capital, you haven't written a single letter to Zuko -- haven't received any, either, come to think of it... You don't talk to anyone, not even me! Mai..." She shakes her head and sighs, sitting up and wrapping her arms around her legs, "I know something's wrong. I'm assuming you've broken up with Zuko. Why?"
"We didn't..." she starts, and feels something deep inside crack a little. It's hard to be emotionless around Ty Lee. "We didn't break up," she says resolutely, as though that's the end of the story.
"You're lying," Ty Lee says, and she sounds hurt. Mai glances at her. She's staring out into the sea, glassy-eyed, but, like always, her face betrays her feelings. "You never used to lie to me."
"Ty Lee..." she begins, but the other girl stands abruptly and leaves without another word.
For the first time in years, Mai cries.
I've been counting on nothing,
but he keeps giving me his word.
And I am tired of hearing myself speak.
That night, she dreams of Azula. She is seated arrogantly on Zuko's throne, slouching, legs crossed, fingers tapping out a vague, bored rhythm against the arms of the chair. Mai is kneeling at her feet.
"I don't know you," Azula says firmly, as though she's explained this a thousand times, "and, frankly, I don't care to."
"Azula," she implores, watching as guards shuffle into her line of sight. Panic rises in her gut, "Azula, of course you know me. We went to the Fire Academy together! We hunted for the Avatar -- you came to Omashu -- to New Ozai," she corrects, bowing lower, "to find me so I could find the Avatar and Zuko with you. I -- We -- We were friends. We are friends. Azula!"
Azula stands and waves a hand at her breezily. "I knew a girl fitting that description once, but she was executed at the Boiling Rock prison for treason. You are clearly not her. Guards!" she calls, as she leaves, "take this peasant away." Arms wrap tightly around her wrists and she lets out a primal scream, jerking away from the men -- all wearing Zuko's face -- who are dragging her to her feet, out the door, back to prison. In the corner of her eye, she sees Azula talking with a girl who is standing on her hands.
She wakes up in a cold sweat, and doesn't know which part of her dream is more horrifying -- that Azula didn't recognize her, that Azula was Fire Lord, or that Ty Lee didn't come to her aid.
Shaken, she leaves her bed and seeks out her best -- her only -- friend. Ty Lee is immediately on high alert when Mai suddenly barges into her room.
"I..." she starts, but has no idea where to go from here. The haze of sleep is fading slowly, leaving her feeling stupid.
"What's wrong? We're not under attack, are we?" she asks urgently, and starts to stand.
"No, no," Mai tells her, pushing her back onto the bed and sitting down. "I just... I'm sorry, about earlier. I shouldn't have -- it wasn't a lie, though, we didn't break up, exactly, things just... fell apart on their own."
Now that she knows they aren't in any danger, Ty Lee relaxes and falls back against her pillow, laughing weakly. "And you had to rush in and wake me up to tell me?"
Color rises to her cheeks. "I... I had a nightmare," she shakes her head to clear it, "and I couldn't... fall back asleep."
"What was it about?"
"It..." She doesn't know how to explain, so she doesn't. "It doesn't matter. It was just... I was alone, and I..."
"Oh, Mai," Ty Lee says, understanding and exasperated and sleepy, "you're never alone. You'll always have me."
Stay with me under these waves, tonight.
Be free, for once in your life,
"You'll have to go back and face him sooner or later," Ty Lee tells her, as dawn stretches across the beach lazily. "You can't stay here forever."
Of course I can, she thinks. Kyoshi is a haven for her kind of person, for the women who have nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to. It's the hide-out for women too strong for the men who chase them, for fighters without a war, for jilted lovers and forgotten loves, for people who didn't change when everything else did -- or who did, but in all the wrong ways. Kyoshi is where she hides, like thousands of women before her and thousands after.
Ty Lee is right, however; she will have to face Zuko at some point, if only to tell him that she hopes to make Kyoshi her permanent home.
It's selfish, she knows. She's supposed to be his rock in this tumultuous time, the person he leans on, who makes all the frustration and annoyance disappear. She's supposed to see him looking south and find a way to turn his gaze west, back to her. She's supposed to make him forget that waterbender girl who won't ever be his.
But she can't. He won't let her, and she's tired of being there for someone who doesn't want her there. He doesn't love her, and she won't play his guilt and sense of duty to make him stay with her. Other women before her have done that sort of thing, and she would be forgiven, if she were even found out, but something in her balks at staying with someone who has already moved on.
She loves him far too much to do that to him.
And at the same time, she thinks that maybe she doesn't love him enough. He never asked her the questions that Ty Lee asks, or gave her the space that Kyoshi Island gives her by default. She is free, here, cut away from the outside world and left to make her own way of things. She is free, without Zuko or the suffocating Fire Nation nobility or the heavy black robes or the long black hair. She is free, and she is not alone, and she thinks that she may never want for anything again, so long as she keeps these two things.
Kyoshi is a haven for women like her. It offers her something unique, something that can't be bought or won anywhere else.
"I know," she says quietly, "but I don't have to leave yet."
There, there, baby,
it's just textbook stuff.
It's in the a-b-c of growing up.
She tries, several times, to write him a letter, but all she ever gets through is iDear Zuko/i and then her hand cramps up or her ink runs dry, and there aren't any words sufficient to explain this situation anyhow.
And suddenly, I've become part of your past.
I'm becoming the part that don't last.
I'm losing you and it's effortless.
Zuko comes to her, but not to see her. The whole island is getting ready for Suki to marry the waterbender's brother -- she knows his name, but refuses to use it out of spite -- and Zuko, along with most of everyone she knows, is coming to see the spectacle.
It's almost amusing.
As the Fire Navy vessel comes in, Ty Lee watches her warily, rocking back and forth on her feet, fidgeting uncomfortably. By contrast, Mai is serene, strangely unaffected by the closeness of her ex-boyfriend. She stands with the rest of the warriors, in full regalia and warpaint, and doesn't flinch even in the slightest when he walks off the boat, his uncle following close behind.
His eyes find her immediately, probably drawn by Ty Lee's nervous movement. He hesitates only slightly -- anyone else would have missed it -- but she catches it, and a brief flutter of hope invades her chest. She takes a deep breath to stifle it.
She moves with the group in the formation they've practiced to greet royalty (or the Avatar) with, and just like that, she's thrown him off her trail. He knows that she's here, but he would never expect her to choose to be a Kyoshi Warrior, to wear the makeup and the robes and the headdress.
Once he's passed and they relax, Ty Lee gives her a strange look. "Aren't you going to talk to him?"
"Yes," she replies slowly, "but not now."
She finds him, later, on the beach at twilight, and her heart yearns to cast off the past year and run to him, to throw her arms around him like she never did before and now never will, to kiss him as deeply and strongly as she once did -- but she chokes it back. She is a Kyoshi Warrior, now, as well as Fire Nation Nobility, as well as Mai, and none of these are given to displays of affection for a lost love.
"I thought I'd find you here," she says quietly. He glances at her, but continues to watch the sea. South, again, she notes, with more than a little bitterness.
"Mai," he replies simply, in that tender tone of his.
"Don't," she whispers harshly, biting back both anger and nostalgia. "You and I both know this is for the best."
He nods almost imperceptibly. "You could have said something, though."
"Was it necessary?"
There's a long pause. The sea laps at their ankles and the sun sinks slowly beyond the horizon. Somewhere out there, a waterbender is coming in on a boat for her brother's wedding. They'll pick up the Avatar -- if they haven't done so already -- from the Southern Air Temple, and bring him here, to this very beach. Tomorrow, or the next day, depending on the winds (or the impatience of the passengers), they'll arrive. She'll form up with the people she's beginning to think of as family, and perform a welcoming ritual similar to the one she performed today, and Ty Lee will be happy -- giddy, even -- because Ty Lee is always happy, and because she and the Avatar have become good friends.
She wonders, vaguely, what Zuko will do. Will he tell that waterbender -- Katara, she thinks, making a conscious effort to get into the habit of using her former enemies' names -- how he obviously feels about her? Will he try to maintain a relationship with her the way he didn't with Mai? Or will he, as is his custom, let her slip through his fingers unchecked?
"No," he answers softly, to her nearly-forgotten question. "I guess it wasn't."
"What will you do when they get here?" she asks. He turns suddenly.
She folds her hands into the sleeves of her robe and shoots him a look. "What," she repeats deliberately, "will you do when they get here? Or, more accurately, when she gets here?"
He looks stricken, evidently having thought himself very clever and adept at hiding his emotions, but he's a fool if he thinks he can hide anything from Mai. He stammers for a moment, but when she rolls her eyes and looks back out to the sea, he composes himself and sighs. "How long have you known?"
"Since a little after you were crowned."
He winces. "That long, huh?"
"You're notoriously bad at hiding things," she replies sardonically, with a bitter smile.
He runs a hand through his hair -- she notices that he still keeps it short, and she wonders at the reason behind his decision. Maybe to fight the heat of the Fire Nation summers, or possibly to distance himself from his father, or maybe because -- as she's learned -- shorter hair is easier to take care of. It doesn't matter much, just another way that this Zuko is different from iher/i Zuko.
"I don't know," he says carefully, "it's all so complicated."
Mai nods. "Matters of the heart usually are."
He gives her an aside glance. "Have you been hanging around my uncle?" It's meant as a joke, but she's in no mood for humor.
"No," she replies shortly, and his laugh dies halfway out his throat. He closes off suddenly, turns away and looks out to sea as though the answers will rise from the depths and show themselves to him. But Mai has been watching the sea for quite some time now, and she knows better than to seek solace from the ocean. "You're not going to find the answer out there, you know."
She watches as his jaw tightens -- he wants her to leave him alone. A part of her wants little more than to do just that, to return to the village and re-join the chaotic feast that's been going off-and-on in celebration, to take a seat between Ty Lee and Sokka and listen to them cast jokes and laughter and happiness back and forth, to escape this beach and this conversation and that look of longing and frustration on his face.
But because she knows Zuko too well to think he'll make this decision without being forced, she stays.
"Don't you have a party to be at?" he wonders aloud, a hint of annoyance in his voice.
"Don't you?" she counters deftly.
He hesitates, but then sighs, his shoulders sagging. "You aren't going to leave until I've given you an answer, will you?"
"Zuko," she says, rubbing at her temple, trying to stave off a headache. "You don't understand. This isn't about you."
"Then what is it about?"
"I want to know that I've lost for a reason. That you're going to at least try with the girl you've chosen over me. There's nothing worse than losing the man you love to someone he isn't even going to bother pursuing."
"Mai, look, I'm -- "
"I don't care," she says abruptly, cutting him off. "Just..." she doesn't know how to phrase what she wants to say, so she decides that bluntness will have to do, "Just take the chance, all right?" He nods dumbly, not having expected this conversation. If she's honest with herself, she didn't expect it, either. "So," she starts, raising an eyebrow, "when I ask you what you're going to do when she gets here, you're going to say?" she trails off, leading him to his answer.
"That... I'll... tell her how I feel?" He says the words as though they're causing him physical pain.
"Good," she replies, swallowing a lump of cold bitterness and pain, trying to make this about his happiness and not her vindication. Something sharp pricks at the edges of her eyes, and she turns on her heel and walks away without saying goodbye, without trusting herself to speak. He does not call out after her. Like before, he doesn't even try to hold onto her -- to them.
It hurts far more than she will ever admit.
And I'm sorry, young man, I cannot be your friend.
I don't believe in a fairy-tale end.
I don't keep my head up all of the time.
Ty Lee is in her room when she returns, laying on her bed, playing absently with one of Tom-Tom's toys that somehow found itself in her bag.
"How'd it go?" she asks, without looking up.
"As well as can be expected," she replies thickly, sliding down against the door and wincing as her voice breaks. Ty Lee jumps up, horror and sympathy on her face.
"Mai! Oh, Mai!" She rushes over and wraps an arm around her, patting her back comfortingly. "Oh, it's all going to be all right, you'll see."
"I know," she says, choking on tears and hating her own weakness. A part of her hates Ty Lee for being here -- she had rushed back to her room to do this part alone -- but part of her is infinitely grateful. "I know," she repeats, sinking onto her bed and burying her face in her pillow. "I knew this was coming, I knew what was happening, I knew and I still -- It still -- "
"I know what'll help," Ty Lee says suddenly, bolting out of the room and leaving Mai confused, uncomfortable, and lonely. Tom-Tom's toy is laying on the floor where Ty Lee dropped it, and she reaches down to pick it up. It's a small wooden sky bison, carved by Aang, and given as a gift for his third birthday. The Avatar had painted it in bright, vivid colors, and Tom-Tom had, of course, loved it, although he had loved the flying lemur visiting with the Avatar more.
She doubts that he misses it -- Tom-Tom has more toys than he knows what to do with -- but still, she should return it. After all, it is a keepsake, something made for him personally by the Avatar. She rolls over on her back and examines the little toy. It's quite a work of craftsmanship -- he even carved a little arrow onto the head and there are individual little grooves for fur, all sweeping backwards, as though the little wooden bison can actually fly.
It blurs in her hand as tears threaten to fall, unbidden and unwanted. She remembers the first time she heard that the Avatar had a flying bison -- a flying bison, and the way Azula said the words had been almost believable, but... a flying bison? She and Ty Lee had both laughed at that (well, she had snickered quietly) because who ever heard of a bison that flew through the air? What a stupid concept.
And then she'd seen it, and the only thing that struck her about it was how very large it was. She didn't even take in any details of the bison (although later Ty Lee would swear that it had eight legs) just the fact that it was huge, furry, and there. And, and, and... it was real.
In many ways, that bison represents everything that has happened in the past four years. Had anyone told her, five years ago, that she would be on Kyoshi Island nursing a heart broken half by Fire Lord Zuko and half by her own hand, she would have scoffed and rolled her eyes and rejected the thought off-hand. But now that everything has happened, that the war has been fought and lost (or is it won? She doesn't quite know which side she was technically on), now that Zuko has been scarred, banished, and subsequently crowned Fire Lord, now that she has played the parts of the dutiful side-kick, the dutiful girlfriend, and lately just Mai... It's hard to accept anything more than the fact that it happened, and she is now here.
As suddenly as she left, Ty Lee returns, bursting through the door with a giant bowl and two spoons. "Ta-daa!" she trills, shutting the door behind her and setting the bowl on the floor, before sitting cross-legged in front of it and holding one of the spoons out to Mai. "The cure for every break-up! Ice cream!"
Mai cannot help but smile.
One day, I am going to grow wings,
a chemical reaction,
hysterical and useless.
"So where will you go from here?" Ty Lee asks around a mouthful of ice cream.
It's a question whose answer she must face. Kyoshi is her haven, her hiding place, but it won't contain her forever. Eventually, she'll have to find somewhere else, some other purpose, a future of some kind to strive for. But it's all so far away from right now, and she isn't prepared to find those answers yet.
"I don't know," she replies truthfully, digging her spoon in deep -- Ty Lee, in a fit of either genius or cruelty, carved the ice cream into a rough sketch of Zuko's face. It makes the simple act of eating the dessert extremely petty, a little disturbing, and so, so cathartic -- and breaking off a good portion of the cheek. "I'll stay here for a while, at least."
Ty Lee nods. "Good. I think Kyoshi is good for you. You've made a bunch of friends and you've learned a lot about fighting and stuff." She smiles hugely and waves her spoon around, gesticulating wildly. "Everything is gonna be okay. And I'm not just saying that because I'm supposed to. I really think so. I mean it. It's all gonna work out, you'll see."
Right now, right here, right where she is at this moment -- she agrees. There's hurt, and anger, and insecurity, but if she has nothing else in the world, at least Ty Lee is on her side.
And that's enough, for now.
("How do you think she'll take the news that the Fire Lord is oh-so-in-love with her? Are she and Aang still together? Maybe we should sneak out whenever she gets here and spy on them, just to see if she turns him down flat. And then we can laugh at his pain, because that's kind of what he deserves, right?"
"No, Ty Lee, we are not going to stalk Zuko or sabotage his future relationships."
"No? Not even a little bit? No, say, starting a couple of little rumors that he might have had a fling with some guy on the ferry to Ba Sing Se?"
"...You've already done it, haven't you?"
"I refuse to answer on the grounds that I might die a horrible death if I do."
"Actually, now that I think about it, spying on this conversation might be fun after all...")