Disclaimer: They aren't mine, sadly. I wish I was this brilliant.
A/N: Thanks so much to Val-Creative for betaing!
Mai had the vague but persistent sense that someone was watching her. She might have assumed it was Azula – she'd done creepier things in the long history of their friendship – but Mai could hear Azula quietly murmuring in her sleep, half-audible whispers of dream chatter, secrets and feelings she would never expose when awake. Azula had always been one for sleep talking; Mai had learned a number of the princess's dark secrets over the years just by lying still and listening.
Mai herself was an insomniac. Mai rarely slept longer than two or three consecutive hours; the rest of her nights were spent half-dozing or trying to doze. If they were together, Azula was usually the one who awoke when Mai slipped out to practice her throwing knives or to spy on someone in the neighborhood.
So Azula knew Mai's nighttime secrets, and Mai knew Azula's. It was something they never spoke about, but they were always aware of the bond it created between them. In some friends, it would have made their friendship stronger. For them, it was a chain made heavy with suspicion and fear.
But it was not Azula watching Mai tonight. Mai knew Azula's eyes on her. This gaze was familiar, similar but not the same. Coiled in a small, uncomfortable ball on her couch, Mai wished that she could firebend – and not merely for the sake of defense. She was freezing. The wind blowing off of the beach was both chilly and persistent – a lot like Azula, really. The thought made Mai grin, but the wind and the soft creak of a nearby board quickly quashed her amusement.
Quietly, Mai pretended to shift in her sleep and slowly reached for a shuriken. Whoever was watching her was coming towards her. She couldn't hear the attacker's footsteps, but she knew someone was approaching. Tensing, she waited, her face turned towards the wall.
She felt fingers on her shoulder and immediately rolled onto her back, shurikens at the ready. She held them up to the throat of her adversary. Her attacker squeaked indignantly, gaping in shock at her. "Hey!" he whispered. "It's just me!"
Mai growled and pulled her shurikens away from him. "Dammit, Zuko," she hissed, "What made you think it was a good idea to sneak up on a girl who sleeps with knives?"
Zuko blinked incredulously at her, his eyes still wide. He reached up with one hand to rub his throat. "You almost killed me!" he said, outraged.
"You crept out of the darkness like some skulking assassin!" Mai retorted. "What did you expect me to do – lay there and let some creep stab me to death?"
Zuko sulked. "I thought you were sleeping," he muttered.
"Mai doesn't sleep," said Azula from the couch across the room. For a moment, Mai tensed, thinking Azula had been awake the whole time; but her voice was groggy and crackling with exhaustion. Their exchange had woken her up. "What are you thinking, Zuzu, sneaking up to a lady's bed in the middle of the night? Mai's mother certainly wouldn't approve if she knew."
Mai gritted her teeth, and wished fervently she had never confessed how deeply her mother's sharp lessons affected her. As for Zuko, even in the dark, it was apparent he was blushing. "Shut up," he snapped. "You'll wake Ty Lee!"
Both Mai and Azula laughed at that. Ty Lee, from her couch on the right side of the room, gave a startled snort, but otherwise didn't stir. "Ty Lee sleeps like the dead," Azula said, rolling onto her side to look at the pair. "You don't have to worry about her. You could run a herd of komodo rhinos through here and she wouldn't wake up. Mai, on the other hand..."
Groaning, Mai sat up and rubbed her eyes. Her dark hair was a mess, disheveled and tangled from all her shifting. She was suddenly very aware of how she must look – wrapped in a bulky robe, bags under her eyes, hair a lopsided birds' nest. Inwardly, she cursed. Why had Zuko thought waking her up was a good idea? If he was anyone else, she wouldn't have cared how she looked. But he wasn't anyone else. He was Zuko.
"Go back to sleep," Zuko said to Azula, glaring over his shoulder at her.
"I would, gladly," Azula grumbled, "But you're still here and talking."
Zuko heaved a sigh and turned back to Mai with a sheepish half-grin. "Umm." He ran a hand through his hair and stuck out a hand. "Wanna go for a walk?"
Mai blinked at him. "It's freezing," she protested.
Zuko flashed her a cheesy grin. "I'll keep you warm," he said, in what he must have thought was a low and sultry voice.
"Oh, lord," Azula groaned, flopping face down into her pillow. "Please, Mai, get him out of here before I hurt him."
Zuko stood, fists clenched and face burning bright red. "You can go – "
Mai stood up hurriedly and grabbed Zuko's arm. "Ok, ok," she said, tugging him towards the door. "We'll go for a walk. Just make sure I don't die of hypothermia or something."
"Don't go if you don't want to," Zuko snapped, eyes narrowing. He dug his heels into the floor and paused, resolute and angry, right behind her.
Mai turned to look at him over her shoulder. In the moonlight his eyes gleamed, his scar a dark shadow marring his pale face. His cheeks were starting to turn pink; he always went redder in the face when angry. "Chill, pissy boy," she said, dropping her hand and lacing her fingers through his. "It's called a joke. You know, a joke? Meant to be silly – and not taken seriously?"
Some of the tension eased in his shoulders, but he regarded her with suspicion. "Not everything's joke-worthy," he grumbled.
Mai smiled and tugged him after her. "Not everything's serious," she countered. "Come on. Don't get mad at me over a moonlight walk of all things. It's not worth it."
Zuko followed her, his fingers closing tightly around hers. He kept a few paces behind her even so, allowing her to pull him along. "It's supposed to be romantic," he said. "You know, moonlight walks on the beach? Don't girls always talk about that?"
"Yeah," Mai said. "It's basically the most unoriginal romantic thing you can do. But good try."
Zuko huffed. Mai had to bite back a smile. He was really a lot like a sulky girl, easily set off, easily offended. "Well, sorry if I don't have a clue what to do!" he snapped. "You're just so hard to read! I don't know what you want anymore. I mean, when we were kids it was easier. You gave me that stone shaped like a heart..."
Mai felt blood rising to her cheeks. Had she really been that sentimental? She'd forgotten that she'd ever been like that. "We were kids, Zuko," she said. "We were stupid then."
"Yeah," Zuko said darkly. "We were."
Mai paused, turning to look back at him. The moon shown down brightly on the still beach; Mai half had the sense that it was watching her, watching Zuko. The moon highlighted Zuko's face, bowed now. The scar was purplish in the shadows. Zuko was looking just slightly to the left; the royal family's beach house was that way. He was gone again, off into those dark and lonely corners of his mind where he never let her follow. Why did he always have to see the bad in everything? The world was a pretty awful place, yes, but did he have to take it so personally?
She took a few steps closer to him. "Hey," she said.
He glanced at her, but his eyes were slow in turning her way.
She closed both her hands over his. "I'm cold," she said.
Zuko looked wearily up into her face. "Ok," he said, cautiously. "And what to do you want me to do about it?"
Mai let go of his hand and flopped onto the sand. "Put on a firebending show for me."
Zuko raised both eyebrows, the anger and sadness fading from his eyes. She grinned. Success! "Why?" he asked. "I didn't think you liked to watch so much."
"I like to watch you sweat," she said.
Zuko frowned. "Why?"
She smiled. It was a slow-spreading smile, the kind with one raised eyebrow and a glint of mischief in the eye. The kind that suggested things. In the moonlight, Zuko blushed scarlet.
"Ok," he mumbled, almost shyly. "Do you want a really big fire show?"
"Yeah," Mai said. "The craziest one you can do!"
He stepped away from her, several yards down the beach. Deserted now even of late night partiers, the place that had seemed so unpleasant and crowded earlier in the day was now peaceful and calm, the perfect retreat for Mai's troubled thoughts. Except for the cold – that, she would happily do without. She tugged her robe more tightly around her and watched as Zuko hunted for the perfect place to perform. He was almost kid-like, frolicking here and there amongst the sand, cursing loudly whenever he stepped on a rock or wayward shell. He was a goofball. He was an idiot. He was the most adorable thing she'd ever seen.
Finally, Zuko stopped darting hither and yon, kicking at the sand with a vaguely critical air. "This good?" he called up to her. "You can still see, right?"
"You're pretty far away," Mai said dubiously.
"I don't want to burn you," he said, lifting his hand and darting fire in between his fingers, worm-like.
Mai's stomach jumped a little. It did things to her when he played with fire like that. The beautiful thing was that he had no idea. "I'm not afraid," Mai retorted, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I know you're not," Zuko said, half-grinning at her. "I'm afraid for you. Am I allowed to be scared that my girlfriend'll get hurt – or is that too sentimental for you, too?"
It was pretty sentimental, really, an irritatingly masculine urge to protect the supposedly weaker female. Mai wanted to tell him that she wasn't weak, that just because she wasn't a bender didn't mean she couldn't defend herself. But that wasn't what this was about; and anyway she could see in his eyes, even at this distance, that he already knew that – had always known that. Her heart pounded a little harder, and heat began to course through her blood. She wondered if firebending felt like that – this incredible, whisper-soft warmth seeping into every inch of her.
Maybe this was a different kind of fire.
"I won't stop you," Mai sniffed, trying to sound disdainful. But she sounded more pleased than she'd intended. She sighed and unfolded her arms, pulling her knees up to her chest and resting her chin atop them.
"Ok then," Zuko said, grinning broadly. He turned away and began to breathe deeply. She could picture his eyes – they would be closed, little creases forming in the skin around them, his brows tightly knitted above them. She tried to remember if his nostrils flared when he breathed deeply like this, and giggled quietly.
A burst of light, and she fell silent, her lips parting just a little as Zuko sent flames dancing into the sky. She had seen Azula firebend innumerable times, had seen performers create flaming dragons and other marvels, but no firebending compared to Zuko's in her mind. It wasn't that he was more impressive than the performers, than Azula – but there was something passionate and driven in the way he bent the fire to his will. When it blossomed from his fingertips, he cradled it in his hands as though it was a child; then he spun it around and around him, watching it with something like love, like total devotion. Sometimes Mai suspected that the fire was the only thing in which Zuko found true beauty.
Mai watched as the bright orange fire crackled and fizzed in the air nearby, and wished for a moment that she was a bender like him. Maybe she could have earned more respect from her family if she'd been a bender. Maybe they wouldn't have put so much pressure on her to be perfect all the time. The flames, a living symbol of their country, would have been enough to make them proud.
Then again, she thought, firebending hadn't made Zuko's father proud. Nothing Zuko did could ever have made Ozai proud.
Zuko spun towards her, getting dangerously close to her, the fire dancing across his fingertips. Mai held her position, even though she could feel the heat of the fire on her skin. Zuko would see her in a moment. For now, she couldn't bear to interrupt him. He was graceful even on this kind of terrain, for once not awkward and silly and idiotic – just beautiful.
The fire flickered and danced closer to her, but still she didn't move. Her eyes followed his movements, tracing the shadows of his body in the brilliance of the fire. A lump rose in her throat, and she felt the heat inside her building again. Her gut clenched, and she breathed deeply of the burning air, not even wishing to blink lest she miss the slightest of his movements.
The fire swung back behind Zuko and burned the air right above her head. She finally twitched, just enough to duck; but she never broke eye contact.
She wondered what it was like to wield fire like that, to dance with death every single day and not fear it. He seemed inseparable from it, as though he was putting his very soul on display for her.
He turned around at last, when he was only a few feet away. His eyes were open now, shining bright gold in the reflection of the flames. He caught sight of her and inhaled sharply, right as fire issued from his hands. Mai scuttled backwards in surprise, more shocked at the fire smoldering out than the actual flames. "You stopped," she said, almost accusingly.
"Mai," he said, as though he hadn't heard her, his voice issuing on a smoky breath. "I'm so sorry – I got caught up – you could've been hurt." He dropped onto the sand in front of her, reaching out and grabbing her hands. His calloused palms were still hot from the flame; her fingers felt impossibly cold, wrapped so tightly in his.
"I would've gotten out of the way," Mai replied sulkily.
"But if I'd burned you – "
"I'm fine, idiot." She leaned forward and kissed him on the nose. He jerked back with a small, undignified squeak. "Thanks for the show. I was really enjoying it."
"Until I almost killed you."
Mai raised her eyes to the moon, half in supplication. "I'm fine," she said. "Really." She glanced at him and half-grinned. "Besides," she continued, "Being lit on fire wouldn't have been half so bad in this cold."
Zuko finally cracked a smile. "No kidding." He glanced towards the thin robe wrapped around her shoulders. "We should've packed warmer clothes."
"It's a beach," Mai replied. "Who knew it would be this frigid, right?"
"I should have," Zuko said. His expression turned grim, and he looked away from her, out towards the ocean. "I remember when we used to come here..."
He trailed off, and said no more. Mai wondered if he was really thinking about those days at the beach, or if he was only thinking of his father's lost approval, or perhaps his mother. She had seen a painting of Ursa in his room when she'd last been to visit him at the palace – a small one, inconspicuous, off in a corner of a small bedside table. But she knew it must mean something to him, hidden though it was. He must think of her every day, and wonder where she went.
Mai wondered too, sometimes. But she had never dared to ask.
She wanted to reach out for him, wanted to grab him around the neck and kiss him and tell him to forget. If it had been earlier – if this had been the beginning days of their relationship – she would have done it in a heartbeat. But she didn't know now where they stood, didn't know what he wanted anymore. Their fight from earlier in the evening, though it was over now, was still fresh in her mind. She wasn't certain what he needed from her.
"Crazy night," she said lamely – empty words to fill the silence.
Zuko turned back to her, golden eyes warm and inquisitive. "All nights are crazy when you're with Azula," he said. She wished he had said it with a smile, but his expression was grim. "That guy's uncle is going to kill him when he sees what happened."
Mai shifted uncomfortably. "He was a jerk."
Zuko cast a sidelong glance at her. She frowned, glaring mildly at him. "What?" she snapped.
His jaw clenched, and he turned away, removing his hands from hers. He stood and walked towards the shoreline, crossing his arms over his chest. "Nothing."
Mai sighed. "I didn't like that boy, you know," she said, getting up and following him.
Zuko looked towards her again, suspiciously. "You sure?" he said. "You seemed pretty involved when I saw you."
"If by 'involved' you mean 'enormously bored,' then yes," Mai retorted, arching an eyebrow. "He wasn't interesting at all. He was all bluster and bullshit." Her expression softened, and she smiled a little. "Even when you were being a jerk, at least you were genuine about it."
Zuko cast her an injured and sulky stare. "Yeah, well, I'd hate to be a fake jerk," he said, voice dripping with wounded sarcasm. "That would just be ridiculous. It's a good thing I'm a real one."
"Only sometimes," Mai corrected mildly. She inched close enough to wrap her arms around his waist, pressing her cheek to his shoulder. She needed to touch him, needed to feel him under her hands. The cold was starting to sink into her skin. She wanted to feel the fire again. "Tonight at the fire..."
"Yeah." Zuko slipped his arm around her waist and leaned his head against hers. She sighed contentedly, leaning eagerly into him. His hand was still warm from his firebending, the calloused palm heavy and radiating heat against her hip. "I really was a jerk. I shouldn't have said that stuff about Ty Lee."
Mai shrugged. "Maybe you shouldn't have," she said. "But it was nice to hear her open up. Most of the time she's just... she's just so..."
Zuko grinned. "Cheery?"
"Yeah," Mai laughed. "Too cheery." Her smile faded. "And I'm the opposite," she said, "Always gloomy, always a mood-killer."
"I wouldn't say mood-killer," Zuko murmured, turning and pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "You tend to put me in certain moods..."
Mai bit back an ungainly snort of laughter, but it escaped anyway. Zuko laughed aloud, loosening his grip on her waist and almost doubling over. "Nice," he teased.
Mai giggled. "Shut up," she ordered, shoving him playfully.
"I don't think you're allowed to tell the Crown Prince to shut up," Zuko replied, straightening and cocking a brow at her. "I think people who tell the Crown Prince to shut up are thrown in prison most of the time."
"Oooh," Mai said, holding up her hands in mock terror. "I cower. Please, Prince Zuko, be merciful!"
He smiled, a mischievous half-grin. "Firebenders show no mercy," he said, and pounced on her.
Mai hit the sand with a loud thump and a muffled exclamation, her breath leaving her in a sharp exhalation. Zuko, apparently heedless, pinned her to the sand, smirking broadly.
"Ow," Mai grumbled, when she could breathe normally again.
"Sorry," Zuko said, sitting back on his haunches and sheepishly running a hand through his hair. "I shouldn't have – are you – ?"
Mai grinned impishly, reached up and grabbed his shirt. She yanked him down on top of her. "Hey Crown Prince," she said.
Zuko stared down into her face, his golden eyes shining with heat and something else. "Yeah?"
She reached up for him, cold hand cradling the back of his head. "Shut up."
His lips, when he pressed them against hers, were hot – as though he'd spewed fire only seconds before, dragon's breath emitting sparks into the night. Falling onto his side, he wrapped himself around her, a knee drawn over her hip, arms circling her back. His hands were still warm, growing hotter every second, sending heat coursing through her skin. Mai clung to him greedily, fingers digging into his shoulders, raking their way through his hair. She wanted to be all over him, wanted to feel the fire at his core. Did firebenders always burn with this kind of heat?
He kissed her with violent passion, hot and desperate. He clung to her as though he was drowning. She held on with all her might, and pressed her mouth back against his over and over again. I'm here, the gestures whispered, I'm here, and I'm not letting go.
She rolled onto her back, pulling him with her. His weight was heavy on her, but she didn't much care. She wriggled indelicately until her legs were freed, knees on either side of Zuko's waist. She coiled her fingers around his hair and wondered if he was really thinking about her, or if he was still in that dark place in his mind where she was not invited.
He came up for air with a deep gasp, his face flushed. Steam curled from his hands, rising up from the sand on either side of her. She stared up at him, panting heavily. She arched a brow. "You stopped because?"
He studied her seriously, his gaze intent. Mai tensed beneath him, fearing whatever he would say next.
"Tonight," he said. "A few hours ago. You said... you said the one thing you cared about..."
Mai smiled, half from embarrassment, half from relief. "Oh," she said. "Yeah."
"Yeah." Zuko looked away awkwardly and bit his lip. "Did you mean it?"
She let her hands drop, propping herself up on her elbows, frowning. "Of course I meant it," she snapped. "I don't say stuff like that for the fun of it, you know."
"I know, I know," Zuko said hurriedly, biting his lip even harder. "It's just... I... um..."
Mai waited. Her shoulders were tense again, the heat doused by the cold wind. The moon glared down from its perch in the sky, suddenly ominous and obtrusive.
"Look," Zuko said.
Oh no, Mai thought, panic welling up inside her. No, no, don't do this to me. Don't you dare.
"I love you," he blurted out, loudly enough that it echoed a little on the empty beach. His eyes widened in shock, and he sat back, passing a hand over his mouth. He was suddenly a twitching ball of nerves, staring at her in horror, as though she might bite his head off.
For a moment, Mai stared blankly at him; then a blush began to creep up her cheeks, and the fire within her veins roared back to life. "Oh, wow," she breathed.
"Um." Zuko ran a hand through his hair, looking sheepish. "Yeah. I just said that, didn't I?"
Mai grinned. "Is that why you couldn't sleep? Why you wanted to take me on this stupid little hypothermia-causing walk?"
His face turned crimson. "No. Yes. I don't know! Please say something other than that."
Mai laughed, loudly and brightly. She sat up, grabbed Zuko's head with both hands, and yanked him towards her. "I love you too, you moron," she said, and kissed him hard.
Zuko gave a muffled cry of joy against her mouth and launched himself at her, knocking her to the ground – fortunately not hard enough to knock the air out of her this time.
His palms were heating up again, and they were all over her now, at her hips, her sides, her thighs. The fire inside her roared and spat, demanding ever more from him. She raked her nails across his back and then immediately wondered if she was leaving cuts with the tiniest of flinches.
Zuko must have took the flinch for something else, because he pulled back, breathing hard. "Wow," he said.
Mai smirked. "Didn't know I could do that to you, did you?"
"No, I was pretty sure you could," Zuko said, grinning. The grin faded, and he glanced towards the house. "I guess... I guess we'd better..."
Mai arched both eyebrows.
Zuko coughed awkwardly. "... stop?" he said, more question than firm decision.
Mai dug her fingers into his shoulder, clung more tightly to his hair. "No," she said, stubbornly. "I don't want to."
Still Zuko hesitated. For a moment she thought he didn't want to, that what he'd said wasn't true, and the fear sent her blood pumping violently through her veins, her heart pounding hard against her ribs. "Zuko..."
"Are you sure?" he whispered. Smoke slipped from his lips and trembled above her face. "Your mom..."
"Fuck my mom," Mai snarled. "Fuck all the rules. Zuko, I love you. And this war... if things ever go bad... if your dad sends you out to fight..."
Zuko looked away. "You think maybe I could die."
She trembled. A cold breeze swept between them. "Maybe we both could," she said. "The other armies are getting bolder. And rebellions are popping up everywhere. With the Avatar gone it's less likely, but..."
She looked into his face. A shadow passed over him, swift and cold, and something dangerous glittered in his eyes.
"He's not gone, is he?" she whispered.
He turned back to her, staring straight into her face. For a moment she thought he might lie – and if he did, she thought, she'd kick him off her right then, walk away, and never look back. He couldn't lie to her. Not about something this important. He couldn't.
"No," Zuko murmured, touching her cheek. "He isn't."
She breathed a sigh of relief – not for the Avatar's safety, never for that. But because Zuko was here with her, because he loved her. Because he trusted her enough to tell her the truth. "Azula said you killed him."
"Azula lied." Zuko bent over and nuzzled her neck, as though to hide. "She does that."
"Yeah," Mai agreed darkly. "She does."
She wished in that moment that she could break from Azula forever. But without Azula there would never have been Zuko. There would never have been this. She gently reached over and cupped his face in her hands, lifting his head so she could look at him. "Hey," she murmured. His eyes were dark and full of sadness. She felt her heart melting for him, breaking. She stroked his scar with her thumb, gently. "Forget her," she said. "Forget him. I'm here."
He smiled, a tremulous little smile that broke whatever was left of her that hadn't broken. "Yeah," he whispered. "Yeah you are."
He bent down and kissed her along the jaw, light and tender kisses that made her heart pound. The cold breeze seemed to fade to the background as heat swelled again, unfamiliar and dangerous, but more wonderful than Mai had ever imagined. She could feel Zuko starting smile against her cheek, a real, full-bodied smile.
"Seriously," he gushed, as she undid his shirt. "I love you."
"You'd better," Mai murmured, pulling him back to her. "Because I love you too. More than I probably should."