A/N: Everything I said about "An Afternoon Alone" and "A Night In Sanctuary" apply here as well.

This particular story is one of two I dedicated to a slightly different theme: Zuko's growth as a person. We saw hints of it towards the end of the A:tLA series, but there were many questions left unanswered. I wanted to explore how it would have progressed through the changes in his life, and how it would manifest in relation to Mai.

These stories also touch on relationship issues like confidence, support, and trust. And, of course, they're meant to be a little fun, a little sexy, and maybe just a little true in ways that only stories can be.

Extrapolating so far beyond the ground covered by the original series took a bit more artistic liberty on my part, and I am treading carefully on this territory. I have sincerely tried to remain loyal to the truth behind these characters, and I hope, as always, to get as much feedback as possible from the community.

I am still debating on the release of the sister one-shot, "Midnight Flames."

Also, to answer a reviewer's question about potentially writing on other A:tLA couples: I don't feel that I know the other characters as well as I do these two, and I am too fond of the series to attempt an inadequate representation. Besides, since there really are no other obvious couples (Aang and Katara's kiss wasn't really a relationship), I hesitate to take so much artistic liberty as to invent one. But I do plan on watching the series again soon, and that may change…who knows.

In the meantime, enjoy.

For everyone who has ever been there when they were needed, and who has been true to another in both word and action.

Twilight Embers

If he clenched his fists any harder, Zuko thought, his nails might be in serious danger of breaking through skin.

"Absolutely not," he repeated, passing his glare over the solemn line of advisors that sat around the long council table.

The chief overseer and warden of the Huo Xing Isles, the most advanced and secluded mental facility in the Fire Nation, took a deep breath. It was as close to a sign of impatience as anyone would display in Zuko's presence.

"Fire Lord Zuko, please," he repeated, speaking slowly in a futile effort to disguise the strain behind his words. "It's been two months since your sister was moved to Huo Xing, and four that she's been in treatment. If anything, she is worse now than ever. If there was any chance of improvement through care, we would have seen signs by now." His voice grew more heated as he went on. "She has injured and nearly killed six of my best doctors since her admittance. Your reluctance to punish her for her crimes is understandable, even admirable, but you are placing your citizens in danger with your sentiments."

Zuko shook with the urge to spring to his feet, to yell at the man's unbearably righteous face that he was not allowing feelings for Azula to influence his decisions, that he was not being weak as Fire Lord, that he was not soft compared to his father just because he was trying to do some good for once–

There it was again. That damned doubt that crept in every time his advisors looked at him with that uneasy mix of wonder and hesitation, respect and reflexive contempt. Overturning a hundred years of iron-fisted rule was no easy matter in the Fire Nation, where strength and power were respected far more readily than were mercy and justice.

Zuko took a slow breath, working his chi from his stomach up through his spine and into his chest. The abbreviated breathing exercise cleared his head slightly, just enough for him to school his expression into some semblance of calm. Mai had been teaching him to control his emotions, but he was still an open book compared to her – something that would have to improve, if he was going to deal with the daunting challenge that was Fire Nation politics.

"We can remove her from the facilities," he said slowly, wanting to grimace at the genuine relief that flooded the warden's expression. "But I will not support my own sister's execution."

A low stir rippled through the assembled council, the equivalent of a chorus of groans in this solemn atmosphere.

"Fire Lord Zuko, her crimes against the nation and against all people of the four kingdoms -"

"Azula cannot be contained or controlled, the risks of holding her –"

The sound of his fist slamming into the table silenced the protests almost before they began. "Enough!" Zuko cursed his anger and immediately tempered his tone, but even he could hear the despised tremor of uncertainty behind his words.

"This council is adjourned for now," he muttered. "I have heard your report, warden, and I will take some time to consider what is to be done with Azula."

The warden was all but wringing his hands with frustration. "Fire Lord Zuko, please consider –"

"I said I will," Zuko cut him off, with a glare that left no doubt that the discussion was over. "Dismissed."

The advisors stood together and bowed low. Zuko saw more than one thoughtful frown and pursed lips of disapproval as they filed out the door. As the heavy oak panels slammed shut behind them, he collapsed back into the Flame Throne with a hollow, uneasy feeling in his chest.

He would have to visit Azula.

"You are a fool, brother."

The word was uttered with such venom that Zuko could almost feel the sound of it eating into his skin. An appalling mix of horror, pity and disgust twisted his stomach into knots.

Azula knelt in the center of the small cell, her wrists and ankles bound together behind her back and chained to the padded floor. Her clean white robes, changed regularly by the staff each morning, were in incredible disarray and wrinkled everywhere, silently testifying to her many episodes of uncontrollable rage which were such a terror to the nurses. Her long hair had been meticulously cleaned and braided, but around her head the strands were frayed and hung in untidy loops and clumps; Zuko could only imagine she had repeatedly pounded her head against the walls, or the floor, to ruin the style so completely.

But her eyes were the worst. No longer angry or even insane, they were like the eyes of an animal, feral and utterly devoid of even that darkest of human torments which signified madness.

Zuko forced himself to swallow past the dryness in his throat.

"I have explained the situation to you," he said with more confidence than he felt. "I will not sign an order for your death."

"You are weak," she spat.

"Perhaps." Even after everything that had happened, the insult still carried with it the ghost of a sting, and Zuko felt a surge of self-loathing for it. "It doesn't matter what you think of me, Azula." How he wanted that to be true. "Unless you agree to stand trial and prove that you can be incarcerated safely, the council will push for your death, royal blood or no."

"You think I don't know that?" She laughed, and then suddenly snarled, lunging forward hard enough to crack her wrists as they strained against her shackles. "Kill me, little brother! You're just like mother, always so damn weak, so fucking caring it makes me sick to see you wear that crown –"

"I will not," Zuko whispered. "Azula, you could be sent back to prison on the Sages' island. You don't have to rot away in a dungeon."

"A prison is a prison, you moron," Azula muttered, sounding almost too bitterly sane for a moment, and then laughed again, a horrible, guttural sound like the rancid breath of a beast. "You think I will stand before those fools and traitors and acknowledge any of them worthy to cast judgment on me? You think you'll get to cart me through the streets while the rats that fill this country mock me behind their hands?"

Zuko flinched a little in spite of himself. "I'm not like you or father. That thought gives me no –"

A gout of flame, erratic and uncontrolled, sprang from her twisted lips without warning, and Zuko was forced back a step as he batted it away. Guards at the end of the hall rushed forward, but he waved them back impatiently. Without control, Azula's firebending was useless.

"Kill me," Azula repeated, contempt dripping from every word. "You may think you're doing me a mercy, but I don't want to sit in a cell and watch your pathetic reign." Her voice trembled with the terrifying mix of hatred and heartbreak. "Kill me, if you're so concerned about me as you claim." And then she fell to broken, wrenching laughter again, occasionally interrupted by sobs that were somehow worse than the rest.

"But how could I?" Zuko groaned, rubbing his eyes until he saw spots dancing in the darkness behind his lids. The image of those wild, empty eyes haunted him, as did the sound of Azula's laughter. Laying flat on his back on smooth, cool stone, he tried to absorb the sun's warmth and cast out the memories. "It puts the lie to everything I'm trying to do if, after all this, I kill her. It's what my father would have done."

Aang, sitting cross-legged next to him, said nothing for a long moment. The wind was still around them in the warm summer afternoon as they reclined on the cliffs of the Northern Air Temple, relishing a period of rest and quiet to ease their mutual burdens.

"I'm the Avatar, Zuko," the airbender said at last, casting a sidelong glance at his distressed friend, "not a ruler. Keeping peace between nations is different from ruling one; sometimes I think it's easier."

Zuko snorted. "Yeah, right. Thanks for trying to make me feel better."

"No, I'm serious." Aang picked at an invisible spot on his sleeve. "I have a tough job, but it's also symbolic. I don't always have to do something to give people hope. But as a ruler, you're always going to have tough decisions, and no matter what you do, not everyone will like it. Sometimes, it's just the lesser of two evils that you have to choose."

Zuko opened one eye and looked at Aang with a sour expression. "Coming from you, that's not very credible."

Aang sighed. "Well, what do you want me to say? Obviously I don't agree with your advisors any more than you do, but you're the Fire Lord. It's your decision to make."

Zuko crossed his fingers over his stomach, resisting the urge to press at his pounding temples. "That's not what you thought, when it seemed like you had to kill my father."

"Is that what this is about?" Aang sighed again. "What would you do with Azula?"

Zuko turned away for a moment, feeling the weight of the question. Aang was his best friend, and he would have trusted the young monk with his life without a second thought, but since they took up their posts in the world there were times when he felt the weight of expectation in those gray eyes – expectation that, no matter how much an honor and satisfaction it was, still felt like a heavy responsibility.

Zuko sat up and looked at his friend, considering his words carefully before speaking. "I want to exile her."

Aang's brow twitched slightly. "Don't your advisors think she's too dangerous for that, Zuko?"

"Not if she doesn't have her firebending."

Aang's face showed no surprise. He had known what Zuko was trying to say all along. "It doesn't work that way."

"You did it to my father. If you could do it to him, why can't you do it to Azula?"

Aang gazed into the empty skies, a faraway look in his eyes. "It's not as simple as making a decision, Zuko. To take away a person's bending, I have to cut it from their spirit. I have to hold their anger, their will, at bay. If for one instant I waver, or give in to what is in their heart, I will be lost. It is a last resort, and only a last resort."

Aang was never the kind of person to turn away from helping others for his own sake, but Zuko could not bring himself to say so. Instead he waited, sensing that the young Avatar had more to say, and that it was his role to simply listen and learn what he could.

"Even so, I would do it, Zuko, if it was the right thing to do. But it isn't." Aang held up a hand to forestall protest. "Listen to me. Azula is your sister, but this decision is one regarding your country. She's not like your father, a threat beyond all control and all nations, and only answerable to the Avatar. She's a threat that you have subdued and must address. This is something you have to do as the Fire Lord.

"If I helped you like this to ease your political conflicts, it would be wrong. The Avatar is not a tool of any government or law, and must not be used as a shortcut to escape responsibility. I have to be the last appeal, not the easy way out. And it wouldn't stop here; what about your future enemies? Other tough decisions you'll have to make?" He smiled a little sadly, suddenly looking as old as he really was.

"I wish I could help you as a friend, Zuko, but as the Avatar, I, too, have to choose the lesser of two evils. I can only tell you that there is a right decision, no matter how wrong things seem, and that you will find it. But, even coming from me, those words are just words until you believe them."

The warm, salty winds of summer nights murmured across the crystalline white sands of Ember Island, caressing Zuko with their sensual comfort as he stood on the balcony of his private retreat, gazing out at the dark shades of the ocean.

"Who am I supposed to be for this?" He asked quietly into the night. "Zuko, or the Fire Lord?"

He could feel her eyes on him, her silent concern as she reclined on the bed with characteristic grace and carelessness.

"I don't see why the two are different," she replied.

Zuko turned away from the lonely expanse of darkness and pulled the translucent, cream-colored drapes closed, instantly adding a sense of snugness to the bedroom. He went to the bed and rolled on to it with a sigh, wrapping his arms around Mai's waist and laying his head on her stomach. She didn't push him away, or mock his display of vulnerability, but leaned back into the pillows and held him gently, brushing her fingers through his hair with thoughtful idleness.

"Thank you," Zuko murmured, nuzzling into her touch. Her nails grazed gently along his scalp, a mild, tingling pleasure that dissolved the ache in his temples. He inhaled deeply the scent of ocean breezes caught in the fresh, light silk of her white nightdress, infused with the warm sweetness of her skin underneath.

"I think you're being silly," Mai commented lightly.

Zuko blinked and lifted his head to look at her, feeling annoyed. "It's a serious matter, Mai. I assure you, I'm not trying to be silly."

He braced himself for her retaliation, but none came. Mai just kept stroking his hair, massaging his head lightly with her fingertips.

"Of course you're not," she replied coolly. "That's not what I meant. I just think you're going about this the wrong way."

Zuko sat up and moved next to her. "How so? What do you think I should be doing?"

A single eyebrow arched with cool amusement. "If your advisors and the Avatar himself can't help you, Zuko, I doubt my humble opinion will." She managed to make the modest observation sound as majestic as though he were a supplicant too thickheaded to hear her wisdom. Zuko decided to not wonder if that had indeed been her meaning.

"Titles matter in politics," he muttered, reaching up to play with her hair, enjoying the silken glide of loose strands against his palms. He loved it when she let down her hair. "But there is no one I listen to more closely than I do you, and no one's opinion I value more." As he said it, he knew he meant it.

Mai reached for his hand, and he intertwined his fingers with hers. The warm lights of the bedroom cast a sharp contrast between the dark of her hair and thoughtful eyes, the slightly sun-kissed summer tan on her pale skin, and the fresh, serene whites and creams of the bed.

"It's not what you should do, Zuko, that I'm concerned with," she said after a pause. "It's how you're making that decision. I think, on some level, you keep forgetting you're the Fire Lord."

Zuko frowned. "I could never forget that. The weight of it is there all the time."

Mai touched his cheek lightly, urging him to look into her eyes. "You remember that you have to do the Fire Lord's job, but you forget that you are the Fire Lord. It's who you are, not a burden."

She moved closer, until the silk of his robe and her dress rustled together between them. Gently, almost reverently, she laid her fingertips on his chest, where a vivid scar marked the strike of lightning that had almost cost him his life at Azula's hand.

"This," Mai said slowly, carefully, "is the reminder you're supposed to carry. That crown doesn't make you, Zuko. The person you are – the person you became – that is yours. There's no need to doubt yourself, your beliefs, or your decisions, just because you now have a pompous assembly of grouchy old men listening to you."

Zuko couldn't help but smile at the last, which was delivered in the same carelessly serious tone as the rest. "Those grouchy old men are somewhat important to the country."


He lifted her hand and pressed an affectionate kiss to the back of her long, graceful fingers. "You're far more important to me. What would you have me do?"

"How dangerous is Azula now?"

"Very." His mouth tightened involuntarily.

"Be more specific. Her firebending is no longer a threat, from what I heard."

Zuko considered for a moment. "In a sense, that is true," he said slowly. "Azula will never understand the true nature of firebending, as the dragons taught us. She only has rage, and plenty of it, but without the cold control she once had to provide a counterbalance…" he shrugged.

"So she can spout a little flame, but nothing any competent firebender couldn't handle."

"I suppose not. But it's Azula we're talking about. As long as she's alive, she has the potential to be one of the deadliest threats to us."

Mai waved a hand dismissively. "Such is true of many things in the world, but life goes on anyway. You keep seeing her as she was, not as she is – in more ways than one. You wanted to banish her. So why not?"

Zuko ran a hand through his hair absently, an old habit of frustration. "It's too dangerous."

"Says who? The pompous old advisers?" Her lips twisted in regal contempt. "Almost every decision you make as Fire Lord will come with some form of danger. But the Fire Nation is strong, the world is prospering, and Azula is only a shadow of her former self, no matter how horrifying that shadow is. A small guard would be sufficient to see to it that she doesn't hurt anyone in exile, if that's what the Fire Lord decides." When she said the title seriously Zuko felt the same mix of expectation and pride that he felt from Aang, but he thought that the weight suddenly seemed a little lighter.

Zuko still held her hand in his, and he rubbed small circles across the back of it with his thumb as he listened.

"You think I'm looking too much to the past."

Mai lifted his hand and set it on her thigh, and Zuko obediently caressed her skin with long, languid strokes, pausing to massage at small knots in the muscle from their swim in the ocean earlier.

"I think you're all looking too much to the past," Mai sighed, stretching out contentedly under his ministrations, her expression as calm as though they were discussing flavors of tea. "But your advisers are old and set in their ways. In dealing with a new situation like this, you should remember your authority and not let them pull you into their paranoia."

Zuko lay back down next to her, propping himself up with an elbow as he lengthened his caresses to include the flat sweep of her stomach, the sleek silk of her nightgown whispering against his palms. "You think I should banish Azula, then?"

Mai made a noncommittal sound in her throat. "I don't think anything, except that you should remember that you're the Fire Lord, and deserve to be. I think you want to banish Azula, with good reason, and I support what you think is right."

Her slow drawl never wavered, but she gazed up at the ceiling as she spoke. A long moment of silence followed. Zuko's hand rested, motionless, on her stomach.

"You always know the right thing to say," he murmured, leaning forward to press a soft kiss against her lips. "How did you know I needed to hear that?"

Mai gave him a wry look, but her hand slipped around the back of his neck with surprising tenderness and pulled him down for another kiss. "I meant what I said."

"I know." Zuko brushed his thumb across her cheek reverently, enjoying the contrast of her soft, pliant skin against his calloused hands. "And I feel like I could do anything in the world right now, because of it." He kissed her for a third time, lingering a little longer. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Mai smiled, just a little teasingly, and pulled him on top of her, intertwining her fingers lightly behind his neck. Zuko held himself up with his elbows on either side of her and nuzzled her nose playfully.

"I was just going to cuddle you tonight," he murmured with another butterfly kiss. "I had a lot to think about."

"Hmm." Mai pretended to consider the notion thoughtfully, sliding her hands under his robe and over his shoulders lazily. "Well, did I ease your mind a little?"

"And then some." Zuko tilted his head to the side, closing his eyes in simple enjoyment as her cool fingers traced along the lines of his throat. She reached up to touch his mouth tentatively, and he held her hand and pressed a slow, moist kiss to the inside of her wrist. The slight hitch in her breath stirred the familiar tension of desire in his stomach.

"Then come here," Mai said, her voice that wonderfully low, sensual pitch that perfumed the air between them with the turn of her thoughts and the excitement of wordless promise. "We'll take the rest of it off your mind."

Zuko smiled. "The rest of what?" He asked innocently, leaning down to kiss Mai's rare, small smile, tilting her chin up insistently until her lips parted and her tongue teased shyly against his, half playful and half taunting.

"You're the only thing on my mind now," he said, and meant it.

When she started to respond, he broke away and instead brushed his lips lightly across her chin and the graceful contours of her neck and shoulders. He kissed reverently the curve of her collarbone and the swell of her breasts through the silk, and further down over her stomach where each breath clenched and shivered as she watched him.

Zuko slid himself down along her body, settling between her legs with his hands resting lightly on her hips. He pressed himself against the distinctive indent in her dress where the silk dipped into the junction of her thighs, inhaling the warm and sweet scent that was only Mai, pressing open-mouthed kisses through the flimsy barrier between them. She inhaled sharply, a shuddering sound of anticipation deep in her throat that excited him in turn. Warm chi, indistinguishable between combat and sensuality, flowed through his limbs until he could feel the heat of his own palms against the silk.

The dress only reached mid-thigh, and Mai wore nothing underneath. Zuko pushed the dress up, moving slowly and deliberately to draw out the sweet expectancy that hung in the air between them like the salt of nighttime oceans.

Mai lifted her hips slightly, letting him bunch the folds of silk around her waist. Zuko slid his hands under her thighs in the same motion, lifting her up to him at an angle to bring his mouth to her for a very different kind of kiss.

Mai gasped and clutched at the sheets beneath them, closing her eyes with a shiver as he explored her with his lips and tongue, gently, relentlessly taunting her with licks, kisses and soft, sucking motions that drew a rush of warmth from her, a liquid and heavy sensation like oil pooling deep in her abdomen. He flattened his tongue against the perfect, sweet spot near the front of her, and the jolt of pleasure was a spark of flame, the ignition of a match in a powder keg.

She heard herself moan, felt the tremors that ran through her body like a phantom foreshadowing of climax as Zuko flicked his tongue teasingly over her, each lick a sliver of electricity under her skin. She forgot her sense of time; it could have been a minute, or an hour, that he held her to him and made every nerve in her body vibrate with aching, unfulfilled need.

With her eyes closed, Mai felt, rather than saw, Zuko pulling away from her. There was a rustle of silk as he shrugged off his robe, and then he was kneeling between her legs, naked and more than ready.

"Come here," he said, his voice low and heavy, and it was a command. Mai sat up and lifted her arms, allowing him to pull the silk dress over her head. He dropped it to the side and paused for a moment, taking her in. Mai lifted her chin defiantly and leaned back on her hands, daring him to see all of her, and Zuko's mouth twitched in a smile that made her arms tingle a little with delightful nervousness.

He moved forward, and Mai found herself scooting back unconsciously, shying away from him and those smoldering eyes until the back of her head hit the pillows.

"Where are you going?" Zuko murmured teasingly, almost intimidating as he loomed over her. "I haven't even done anything yet."

"More the pity," Mai quipped reflexively, and let him kiss her. She tasted the sweet tang of her own arousal on his lips and tongue as Zuko stroked lightly along the inside of her thigh, moving steadily higher until he could slip a finger inside her.

The unexpected touch made her tense up, breaking their kiss with a soft gasp against his lips. Zuko leaned his weight on her and shifted his attention to the sensitive line of skin along her neck, his fingers teasing, stroking and pressing in all the right ways with the skill of a familiar lover as she writhed beneath him. Her breath came in sharp gasps and moans, and suddenly she felt the tell-tale pressure winding inside her. She wanted him to keep going, but it wasn't enough. It didn't feel full, complete, overwhelming, like she wanted.

"Zuko," she breathed, "enough. I'm ready."

She felt him shake his head. His teeth grazed over the sensitive skin at the junction of her neck and shoulders, drawing another shudder from her.

"Not yet."

Mai would have frowned at the refusal, would have argued, but Zuko pushed a little deeper, crooking his finger to rub against the bundle of nerves inside her that arched her back and tore a cry of pleasure from her lips. The pressure in her stomach turned into a twisting, clenching tension, an ache for release that made Zuko's gentle touches almost painfully frustrating.

As she lay trembling, her thoughts fogged with tantalizing pleasure and longing, he moved away, using short strokes of his fingers to bring her until she felt her desire, warm and slick, on the insides of her thighs. He pulled her towards him, guiding her legs around his waist, but stayed upright on his knees instead of settling himself over her.

Mai had a split second to realize what he was going to do, and her body tried to tense, to recoil from him. But Zuko's timing was perfect, and she was still relaxed, aching for more, when she felt the tip of him, hard and almost unbearably hot, pressing against her. There was only a moment of resistance, and then he entered her easily in one deep thrust, hitting bottom inside her in that first fluid movement.

The strain of controlling his wildly fluctuating chi showed in the tightness of Zuko's jaw, the lines of his eyes and his low, involuntary groan of pleasure as she enveloped him in an instant. He held himself motionless, holding her tightly against him as she arched off the bed and her scream drowned out his labored breaths.

He hesitated for a moment, wanting to stop, to ask her if she was ok. But when Mai's eyes met his her command was clear, and whatever pain she must have felt from the heat of his body and the rough intrusion was gone beneath the raw need burning in her expression.

Zuko leaned forward, and Mai tightened her legs around him as he lowered his head to her breast. Her hands cupped his face, trying to urge him up for a kiss. Zuko pinned her wrists impatiently to the bed, and closed his mouth around her right nipple.

He ran his tongue over the stiffened bud with a firm sucking motion, smiling when she moaned and shivered lightly. From the stifled sound of it, Zuko guessed that she was biting her lip. A dark rush of masculine dominance flared up at her characteristic defiance, and he ground his hips against hers, stretching the limits of her body as far as he dared without hurting her.

Mai cried out and pushed back against him, her eyes fluttering closed in ecstasy. A violent shudder suddenly wracked her body, her stomach taut and trembling, and Zuko felt the ripples of that movement deep inside her as she clenched around him.

The sudden rush of sensation took him by surprise. His head was still lowered to her breast, and he inhaled the warmth of her skin as he caught his breath sharply. His head swam. He released her wrists to hold her shoulders and press her to him, and her nails carved her pleasure across his back as he pulled back and thrust into her, his temperature spiking in pulses like a second heartbeat in rhythm with their movements. He had to be too hot, too uncomfortable, but Mai was clinging to him just as tightly, rocking her hips with every thrust to take him in deeper, encouraging him with every gasp and breathless scream.

And then, suddenly, she was there, rushing towards an intangible, glowing peak with the pleasure winding tighter and tighter in her until it couldn't possibly be any more. The warm sensuality Zuko had spread through her limbs seemed to catch fire, and the rapture burned her from within as Zuko's body burned against her skin. Mai could hear the distant, silent white noise of release pounding in her head as Zuko held her against him, lifting her hips until every thrust slid the whole length of him against that perfect angle inside her.

And just like that, she came, her own cries muted by the ringing in her ears as he brought her over crest after crest of ecstasy until the taut, straining spasms of her body died out into short, breathless shivers. Each little tremor made her whimper softly in her throat, as the heat of Zuko's body inside hers slowly registered through the hum of endorphins flooding her brain.

Before she could process that it hurt, it was gone, he was firmly in control again, and there was only a lingering ache where he filled her with his warmth and weight. Mai blinked slowly, trying to recover her scattered thoughts.

He had stopped, instead of using her release to push to his own. Mai knew he could only forget his inhibitions, move like he wanted to, when she was drowning in the joy of climax and couldn't feel the discomfort. She couldn't make sense of why he hadn't done so.

He smiled, as though hearing her silent question, and kissed her, slow and languid, utterly reverent as he breathed her in and caressed along her trembling limbs, worshipping her with his hands.

Mai gasped for breath when he finally broke off the kiss. "Zuko, you didn't finish."

He kissed her again, cupping her breast gently in his hand and brushing his thumb over her still-hard nipple until a ghost of a shiver ran through her exhausted body. "I will," he said simply, grinding his hips ever so carefully against hers.

A shadow of her dismay must have shown in her eyes, because he reached up and reassuringly brushed back a strand of hair that had fallen across her face. He pulled out of her slowly, cautiously, almost all the way, and slid back in with silken ease; Mai couldn't quite suppress a shudder at the deliciously wet glide of his movements, but concern still pressed insistently at her.

"Zuko, go faster," she breathed, ignoring the aching, trembling weakness in her knees as she tried to force the pace with her legs. "I can take it."

He shook his head, still moving with that strange, controlled rhythm, drowning out the discomfort of her hypersensitivity with fresh little jolts of pleasure. "I want to finish like this," he said, nuzzling softly against her neck.

Mai had thought she was exhausted, but her body was responding again, the pressure building up much faster the second time, and she could only manage a breathless "why?" as he slowly but relentlessly pushed her towards another orgasm.

Zuko was breathing heavily too, each breath straining with controlled steadiness. Mai could feel tension in every line of his body, could sense how close he had to be to that wonderful peak, but his skin remained a comfortingly warm temperature, and the effort of it carved itself into his almost pained expression. But beneath the tight, drawn brows, his eyes looked at her with a wonder and adoration so achingly pure, it stole her breath more completely than any sex could have done.

"To thank you," he murmured, brushing her hair back from her face carefully as though choosing the perfect moment to engrave her image in his memory. "For everything you are, and everything you've done for me."

The words were so strange to her, and the easy, open way in which they flowed from his lips so much stranger, that Mai could not think of a reply at first.

"I'll always be here, Zuko," she said finally, reaching up to cup his face tenderly with her hands. She brushed her fingertips against the roughness of his scar, and he closed his eyes, turning his head into her caress. "There's nothing to thank me for."

"Yes, there is, though I'll spend the rest of my life trying to thank you properly." He said it with a small, crooked smile, teasing, but his eyes were serious. And he was still rocking against her, each thrust controlled and almost painfully slow, and it felt perfectly, strangely right. He pressed his lips against hers, and Mai closed her eyes as something tried to paint itself across her face. She didn't know what it was, but after a moment of stillness it passed, and Zuko never saw.

"Right now," he whispered, "just relax, and let me."

And she did, unable to do anything else. She held him in her arms, her eyes closed, catching her breath and biting her lip softly with each gentle, inexorable wave of pleasure. Zuko's labored breathing warmed her neck, and his soft, gossamer kisses lifted the fine hairs on her arms. They moved together, and it seemed to Mai that the rhythm of the night winds and the murmuring ocean outside flowed and pulsed through them.

This time, when she came, it didn't crash through her or break in an explosion of heat. It washed over her in long, swelling waves, arching and subsiding and cresting again as she writhed against Zuko and cried out his name. He thrust into her a few more times, deep, forceful, but still with that impossibly controlled glide, and she heard him groan against her shoulder as his body temperature finally wavered and spiked through his iron will for a moment, raising a fresh sheen of sweat over her body as he spilled himself into her.

With a last, shuddering sigh, Zuko relaxed, his weight resting comfortably over her as he held himself up on his elbows. Still with that little smile, he brushed his lips over hers, and Mai leaned up to draw him into a deeper kiss, wrapping her arms around his neck contentedly.

She didn't know what to say, but he didn't speak either, and the silence between them was a comfortable warm glow. Minutes passed in perfect contentment, sleep beginning to spread its wisps over Mai's wonderfully dreamy thoughts.

She barely noticed Zuko pulling out of her and rolling to the side, sliding his arm under her head so she could snuggle comfortably against him. He pulled a light blanket over them and slipped his arm around her waist, holding her tightly. The need of that embrace warmed her, surrounded her with a sense of safety and peace like nothing else in the world.

She could hear the beating of Zuko's heart, deep and strong in his chest as she nuzzled against him, and his long, steady breaths. She could feel his arm tight around her waist, his leg heavy over hers, the gentle whisper of inaudible words against her hair, and then the beautiful, dreamless bliss of a deep and happy sleep.