Their Third Time was Bittersweet

The thoroughly spent couple slept soundly until morning when the sun's rays poked through the shuttered windows and spread across the bed on to the two unmoving bodies. As if the light of the sun had triggered some sort of internal wake up system, Zuko jumped up nimbly and turned to look at Mai. She stretched like a cat, gold eyes still closed against the annoying daylight.

"Where are you going?" she rasped.

"I'm just going to clean up a bit and get dressed," Zuko replied.

He bent down and placed a kiss on her forehead. She grabbed hold of his hair and pulled him down for a more intimate kiss.

"That's better," she drawled. "You can go now."

Zuko laughed and entered Mai's well equipped bathroom. He washed and dressed, running a hand through tangled dark hair. His reflection looked the same but he felt different, happier and more content than he had been in what seemed like forever.

Mai took her time getting out of bed. She had always found waking up difficult and so did it in stages. More stretching, yawning and burying her face in silk covered pillows followed. Zuko was sitting on the sofa by the time she gracefully climbed off the mattress and went into the bathroom to follow her own morning rituals.

"Want some tea?" she asked as she sat down beside Zuko a surprisingly few minutes later.

"Yeah, sounds good," he replied.

She was all covered up again, knives in place, with her glorious hair pinned and twisted into its usual style. Somehow, knowing every contour, every curve and dip, every last patch of pale softness that lay beneath the layers of cloth made Zuko's breath hitch even more than it did when she was naked before him.

Mai looked at him quizzically and left for the kitchen to make a pot of tea. When she returned with the tray and tea service, Zuko was slouched on the sofa, legs stretched out, his chin resting on his hands. He looked pensive. Not wanting to disturb his thoughts, Mai sat down on the other end of the sofa and poured the tea. As she was about to offer him a cup, a servant crossed the threshold of the room and bowed to Zuko. The prince was wanted at the war meeting. In fact, his father, Fire Lord Ozai, would not begin without him.

A small smile played at Mai's lips. When he turned to Mai with his own smile, quick to share his happiness and relief with her, her heart fluttered against its cage of bone.

"Go," she said with her eyes and he left.

Mai puttered about her room for most of the day, reading, tossing some blades about and thinking about her lover. When she stretched out on the couch with her book, she replayed their lovemaking from the night before in her mind. It was infinitely more captivating than the plot of the play she was currently reading and she was partially aroused by the time she decided to meet Zuko at the palace.

She walked across the street to the ornate yet still lovely building, her pace quickening the closer she got. It was already evening and the sun was beginning its descent. At the gate, the guards let her in immediately; she was a familiar sight and a frequent visitor after all. Once past the gates, she headed for the main doors, large and gold colored, set in the centre of the structure and also surrounded by guards. The palace was aglow with little dots of orange light and their reflections danced along the intricate stone pathway.

The guards nodded at Mai and opened the doors for her. She ambled down this hallway and that until she arrived at the throne room where all important war meetings were held. Leaning casually against one of the many gigantic pillars that graced the long hallway, she waited for the meeting to end and Zuko to emerge. She wasn't directly in front of the room, but down the corridor a bit where no one could see her.

When Zuko finally did walk by, he looked determined and a little bit lost all at the same time. Mai stood up straight and walked along with him. She asked him how the meeting went. Everyone had welcomed Zuko and Ozai had saved his son a seat. He was at his father's right hand. Mai was thrilled. Zuko had wanted this kind of acceptance from the moment they stepped foot on Fire Nation shores. She put her hand on his armor covered shoulder and smiled.

It wasn't right, though. He wasn't happy. Something had happened. When they reached the end of the hallway, Zuko stopped in front of Ozai's portrait. He stared at it and Mai stared at him. She felt powerless and a sort of profound sadness. She wanted to know exactly what was going on, but Zuko chose to be cryptic rather than forthright.

"I wasn't me," he said and continued to stare at the painting that depicted a powerful and fierce looking Ozai.

Mai said nothing but eventually reached for his hand. He held it tightly and the pressure hurt. She wasn't sure what to say so supported him with touch instead. Pulling her hand away from his she reached up and cupped his cheek. His expression was almost tortured now and he trembled a bit.

Suddenly, he pulled her down a hallway to their right, the end of which held a room with heavy red curtains instead of a door.

"Where are we going?" she asked breathlessly as he dragged her along.

"In here," he said roughly and gave her a gentle shove that sent her through the thick fabric and into a dark and empty chamber.

Before she had time to say another word, Zuko's lips were on her. He kissed her deeply while inching her back against the wall, his hands roving over every bit of her body they could reach. When she was pressed flat against some gloomy tapestry, recognition hit her. This was one of their childhood hiding places from Azula. No one ever entered this room. It was forgotten for some unknown reason.

"I remember," she gasped as Zuko began to pull frantically on her pants and underwear. "We used to hide here."

"Yes," Zuko replied breathlessly as he finally reached bare skin.

The prince ran his always warm hands over her behind and down her thighs. Mai was completely aroused now and wanted nothing more than for Zuko to be inside her. She didn't care about foreplay this time and it was apparent that Zuko didn't either.

He pressed his head into the crook of her neck and inhaled deeply, trying desperately to imprint her smell on his memory. The scent of vanilla and orange blossom shampoo came from her hair and the perfume she wore was delicate, smelling faintly of fire lilies. Mai put a finger under his chin and lifted gently. She looked into his eyes and his expression scared her.

"What's wrong, Zuko?" she asked. "You're acting like we'll never get to make love again."

"N, nothing," he stammered. "I just, I just want you so badly."

Sighing, Mai let it go. Her lover's emotions were sometimes impossible for her to navigate, like the swirling surface of a tumultuous sea. When he was ready, he would let her in.

Satisfied that she was finished talking, Zuko moved downward, pressing hard kisses along her inner thighs, running a hand sensuously along the blades strapped there, and then moving between her legs, inhaling again. He was agonizingly hard and reached between his own legs to touch himself. He pulled and twisted, working his pants down just low enough to free his aching member.

He still wore his armor and his hair was still pulled back into that stiff topknot he wore to formal meetings. Mai yearned to free it but just as she reached up with her hand, Zuko grabbed her left leg and moved it upward, holding it in place and exposing her further. Without hesitation, he pushed into her. Mai cried out and then bit her lip.

"Oh, Agni, Mai, did I hurt you?" Zuko asked, a horrified look on his handsome features.

"No," she whispered. "I'm just a bit sore from last night."

"Sorry, sorry, sorry," he replied and covered her face with kisses.

"It's okay," she replied and thrust forward, letting him know it was alright to continue.

He resumed his actions, pushing steadily and Mai pushed back. Zuko looked searchingly into Mai's almond shaped eyes as he moved, and then over every part of her lovely face. He let go of her leg and she instinctively wrapped it around his waist. With his free hand, he traced over Mai's features, across her forehead, down her perfect nose, around her eyes, along her high cheekbones and over her soft lips. It was more intimate somehow than the actual intercourse and Mai felt the beginnings of tears in her eyes.

They climaxed at the same time, both uttering soft cries and then slumping into each other. Zuko kissed her neck and then her lips while running those warm hands down her legs again. They were a bit shaky now, but the gentle strokes eased the tremors. When she was steady on her feet again, they both dressed.

"I guess I should go home now," Mai stated.

"I'll walk you," Zuko replied.

They didn't say anything until they were well beyond the palace gates.

"You need to be safe tomorrow," the prince stated.

"I know; we'll all be underground. You'll be there too, right?"

"I, I'm not sure, probably," he replied.

"What aren't you telling me, Zuko?" Mai asked.

Her normally calm voice quivered just a bit.

"I'm tired Mai. We'll talk about it later."

It wasn't the truth but not quite a lie either. It was the best he could do.

"Okay; I won't push."

At the top of the white stone steps, Zuko embraced Mai. They kissed, tongues meeting briefly. When she shut the door, Zuko let out a loud shuddering sigh. As he walked back to the palace, the prince looked back at Mai's house, trying to catch a glimpse of her, closing the shutters perhaps or lighting a lamp. He saw nothing, however, and swallowed the little disappointment down like a bitter draught of medicine

When he brushed a stray piece of hair out of his eyes, he could smell Mai on his fingertips.