Authors Note: All right, so I'm definitely branching out a little bit with this one...just a strange little idea that jumped into my mind one day. I'm not sure if I'll be writing more stories for ATLA, but this is just one that I couldn't pass up. Let me know how I did when you're done reading! I appreciate it tons!
Disclaimer: Sigh, if only.
You have to walk carefully in the beginning of love; the running across fields into your lover's arms can only come later when you're sure they won't laugh if you trip. ~Jonathan Carroll
Mai never liked surprises.
But she had to admit that when Zuko had shown up on her doorstep that night, his eyes alight with what she could only describe as childish delight, asking her to accompany him to some unknown location...admittedly, her curiosity was piqued just a little.
True, it was a given that most Zuko-related things piqued her interest. Nevertheless, she had to balk a little when his response to "Why? What's going on?" was a blunt, "It's a surprise."
It was an odd thing coming from him, completely unforeseen, since he had always been nothing but straightforward in their relationship. She'd raised an eyebrow at him, skeptical and fully prepared to deny his outlandish, post-midnight proposition. But once her eyes found his, still containing that oh-so-rare gleam, she immediately abandoned any hope of saying no.
He took her silence as compliance, gently taking one of her hands in his like he had done many times before and pulling her down the steps to her house, leading her toward the outer perimeter of the capital.
She noted that after a few minutes had passed, the expressive glimmer was taken over by its usual dim shadow, and he remained silent for most of the walk. By the way his eyes were downcast, she could tell he was in one of his pensive moods.
"Worried about the meeting tomorrow?" Mai asked quietly, knowingly, running her thumb across the back of the hand she was holding. She knew it had been on his mind for days now, always resurfacing at the worst of times.
He glanced up at her and nodded. "I wouldn't be so worried if I knew whom I was meeting with. But they're new diplomats from all over the Earth Kingdom." He frowned, kicking along a pebble on the dirt path they'd been traveling down. "I just...I wish I knew what to expect."
Zuko had never been a fan of political meetings, for obvious reasons. And even without the threat of physical punishments, they were still a problem for him. He'd never been very articulate, and it was still an intimidating factor for him that he had such incredible influence over worldly affairs, that one slip-up or miscalculation could very well put one of the nations in turmoil. But his travels had helped him to learn empathy for the other nations, which in Mai's opinion had already put him miles ahead of his father in terms of being a good leader.
And it didn't hurt that Mai had started to attend the meetings as well. Zuko had freely admitted that she had a good grasp on politics...not to mention his temper.
Mai rested her head on his shoulder as they went along. "This isn't the first meeting you've held on this topic, you know," she reasoned. "The only real difference between this one and the last few is that the diplomats are different. But they're all representing the same parts of the Earth Kingdom as the last."
"So you think that means they'll all have the same opinions?" He asked dubiously.
"They all want the same results for their nation. So it would only make sense for them to be in agreement, at least in most areas."
Zuko considered her words for a moment and nodded distantly, still appearing a little unconvinced. "You make it sound so easy," he said dolefully, "It's like starting over every time they send new diplomats. Don't they know how frustrating that is? Why would they do that?"
"Because no one enjoys arguing with you," Mai replied easily, a smirk creeping its way across her face. Zuko only realized she was joking once he saw her humored expression. He gave a short, almost choked laugh before the frown found its way back.
Noticing this, Mai blew out a frustrated sigh and stopped walking, which in turn forced him to stop as well.
"Zuko, please," she said seriously, breaking free of his grip to raise her hand to his face. She lightly ran her fingertips across the tainted, darkened skin and he closed his eyes, relishing in her touch. "For once, just stop worrying."
He opened his eyes again, gold irises moving to meet half-lidded amber brown. They spoke volumes of sincerity and concern for him, two things that he still wasn't used to being on the receiving end of. It was only a year before that he could count the number of people who cared about him on one hand. And now here he was, the banished prince-turned-Firelord who had restored his honor and the balance of the world, had broken the reign of terror set by his forefathers, had followers who believed in him, actual friends, and a girlfriend he wouldn't trade for the world. Who would have guessed? Certainly not him.
Feeling reassured, he nodded again, this time more fervently. "You're right. I won't think about it anymore." Mai's lips hinted at a rare, honest smile. Another battle won.
She transferred her hand back to his, giving him a nudge to continue down the path again. "So I don't suppose you're going to tell me where we're going."
He shook his head, the shaggy, dark tendrils moving along with it. "I told you it was a surprise." Mai groaned.
"I know you don't like them, but I can't just tell you; you have to see it. Besides, we're almost there."
Mai sincerely hoped he was right. Sure, it was a beautiful night, but as they went on, temperatures dropped. Occasionally the wind would pick up a little, stirring up her loose ebony hair, a bitter reminder of the fact that she was clothed only in a flimsy burgundy nightgown. Zuko's hastiness didn't allow for her to grab her robe before they left. He was more fortunate, wearing one of his casual layered tunics...with warm pants to cover his legs, she might add.
Noticing the chilled feel of her hand, Zuko released it, instead extending his arm over her shoulders, pulling her closer to him. Using his bending, his warmth spread from his core to the tips of his fingers, which he rubbed softly up and down her arms until the chills went away. "Better?" He asked.
"Great. Now you're a mind reader, too," she commented dryly. He snorted, to which she responded by flicking his nose.
After a few more minutes of walking, Zuko stopped abruptly at the sight of an old, half-fallen tree. "Close your eyes. We're here."
Mai shot him an unbelieving look, clearly annoyed. "You make me come all this way, and now you want me to close my eyes?" She narrowed her gaze. "This is why I hate surprises, you know—"
"Just do it," Zuko interrupted, pinching the bridge of his nose.
She complied reluctantly, a scowl adorning her porcelain features. He tried moving forward with her, but she refused. "I'm going to run into something," she explained stubbornly. He should have known she was going to be difficult.
"No you won't," Zuko snapped. Trying to keep his temper in check, he ran a hand through his hair, his tone a little lighter. "Come on, Mai. It's like, twenty feet from here and I'm not letting you run into anything."
"Fine," she sighed, letting him guide her blindly the rest of the distance. Her mind tried to guess where he had led her. The path they had been on was in a wooded area, but she could tell by the distantness of the leaves fluttering in the wind that they were now in some kind of clearing. Then her ears perceived the sound of running water, a little more than a trickle of a stream, from the sound of it.
"Okay," Zuko said breathlessly, squeezing her hand a little. "You can open them now."
Slowly, she complied, her eyes trying to perceive as many shapes as possible in the dim evening light. The moon reflected onto the miniature waterfall and the small pond that formed around it, and her eyes were instantly drawn to it. The water moved smoothly in some parts, but was slightly deterred by stones in others, creating the effect of quiet water fall. The source was further upstream, decorated by various greenery and drooping foliage. The rest of the area, as she assumed, was a grassy clearing, dipping down in the middle to form the shallow bank of the pond.
Mai's eyes pirouetted around the space but stopped once they met Zuko's. After a moment, he averted his gaze to the ground, finding particular interest in the way the wind made the luscious grass blades sway.
"Well, what do you think?" Zuko's voice cracked, awkwardly breaking the silence.
Admittedly, it was a rather beautiful location, and Mai appreciated the fact that he'd found it just for her. Was it clichéd? Yes. Was it ridiculous? Just a bit. Was it another one of Zuko's corny, yet undeniably sweet attempts at romance that always seemed to get to her somehow? Absolutely. And that was all that really mattered in the end.
Mai delayed her response for a beat, taking enjoyment in seeing him nervous. She couldn't explain it, but she felt that she saw more of him when he was, that he was somehow more genuine, real to her. But the longer they dated, the less nervous he became around her. So it couldn't hurt to milk this for all it was worth...
She felt the sweat gather in his palm, watched his good eye slowly grow wider and wider in anticipation of some response from her. She smirked furtively, finally deciding she had tortured him enough.
"I like it," came her simple, plain reply.
Zuko's reaction was a mix of shock and disappointment, which he tried to disguise as indifference. Shock, because it was rare for Mai to ever admit to liking anything, especially so bluntly, and disappointment because he half-wished she had said more. Truth be told, the small oasis wasn't exactly next door to the palace, and he had gone to great lengths to find it. So he had deemed it only fair that such effort should illicit a greater response from her...
Mai carefully watched the tempest of emotions cross Zuko's face. Suddenly, a devious thought entered her mind.
"Do you know why I like it?" She asked demurely.
Shaken from his thoughts, Zuko's gaze darted up from the ground. Caught off guard, his expression was both visibly stunned and at the same time seemed to say, No, so tell me, urging her to go on.
Gingerly, Mai placed both of his arms around her small frame, putting her own arms around his neck to pull him closer. Gratefully, he accepted her embrace, letting his hands move up and down her back while she rested her head against his chest, softly playing with the messy locks that brushed against his collar. Slowly, she lowered his head to her level and softly murmured in his ear, "I like it because it's perfect...for a lot of different things."
She could feel the confusion etched on Zuko's face without even seeing it. Nevertheless, he played along, nodding his head against hers. "Yeah, I guess it is..." he trailed off quietly.
"You don't know what I'm talking about, do you?" Mai whispered back, forcing herself not to roll her eyes.
"No," he admitted, now more lost than ever, "What do you mean?"
Mai grinned a little against his cheek. "Come on, Zuko...I know you're not that ignorant." Again, he felt her hot breath caressing his ear. He tensed up a little when her breath moved from his ear to his jaw, her lips leaving a gentle trail of kisses as they neared his own. "You know...things that you've always wanted to do, but never had the chance to," she added vaguely, continuing the trail while moving her hands to his firm chest.
She felt the heat rise to his cheeks not a second later, indicating he hadn't missed the meaning of her words. His breathing quickened involuntarily and his heart thumped wildly against his chest. "Mai, I-I—" he barely managed to sputter out before her lips met his.
Mai gripped his body tightly against her own, her lips moving slowly against his, tantalizing him. Despite his apprehension and pure bewilderment at her inexplicably forward behavior, Zuko became lost in the kiss. He felt lightheaded; the combination of her frontal body being closer to his than ever before and his breath failing him was almost too much for him to handle.
It was nothing like any of the kisses they'd had before. It was definitely nothing like the one she'd stolen from him when they were young and shy and embarrassed for weeks to come. It was nothing like the kiss they'd shared upon his return home, or like the ones amongst carefree giggles and rolling around in the sand on Ember Island, or even like the recent ones shared during their secret late night trysts by the turtle-duck pond.
She broke away for a moment then, sensing the remains of apprehension that he was harboring. Upon seeing his face, she found that his kiss was not the only thing that gave him away. His entire face was beet red, almost to the point where the scarred skin blended in with the rest of his complexion. His eyes were a vast sea of confusion; she felt them roaming her own features, probably shocked that she didn't appear anywhere near as flustered as he. But behind the confusion was something else—something just as equally tangible, but not at all as common. Could it be...?
"You're not afraid?" She murmured the question against his lips doubtfully, her forehead brushing his.
Zuko found himself incapable of forming a response—he was too preoccupied trying to control his huffs of rasped breathing. It proved nearly impossible; his rough gasps had become dangerously hot, his lungs threatening to let out spits of fire.
But his breathing stopped altogether when she continued, "I wouldn't expect you, of all people, to be." She smirked at him knowingly, as if they were sharing a joke. Of all people? What was that supposed to mean?
She had to have meant that he wasn't afraid because he was always brave. She couldn't have meant...she didn't honestly think that he...that he had a lot of experience in...that he wouldn't be afraid of...? Oh, but that smirk...
That's what she meant.
Zuko wished more than anything that he could remember how to speak again—to explain how very wrong she was—to assure her that he was more terrified than he had ever been and had no reason not to be. But he was rendered helpless. And worst of all, she noticed.
She granted him the slightest reprieve when her gaze left his for a moment. "After all, it's just a little..." she said, seemingly searching for the right word, her delicate fingers trailing up and down his arms, sending jolts through his body. But when her eyes locked onto his again, they were wildly triumphant. "Revenge."
Before his mind could register what was happening, he felt his body being pushed backward. He stumbled and windmilled his arms, but to no avail. His heels glided across the edge of the wet ground bordering the pond, and he yelped a little when he felt himself falling to his waterlogged doom.
The cold pond water rushed over his face for a moment before he righted himself, trying to regain some semblance of his dignity. As he wiped his face clear, he saw Mai standing above him, giggling softly at her achievement.
And then his mind finally caught up with him and took in what she'd just said. "Hey, that's not fair! You already got that revenge, remember?" He scowled at her through sopping wet locks.
She stopped. "What?"
"Revenge. Fountains. Ba Sing Se. Ring any bells?" She just stared at him. "That's what this is about, right?"
She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. "No, you dweeb. This is for dragging me all the way out here in freezing weather in the middle of the night."
He looked incredulous. "So I find this place on my own time, bring you out here just because I wanted you to see it too—"
"—In the middle of the night," she added.
He ignored her. "—And this is how you thank me?"
She thought for a beat and nodded.
"You think that's fair?"
"For making me walk barefoot through a forest to see nature? Yes, I do think it's fair," she said calmly.
He growled. "I thought girls are supposed to like stuff like that!"
"Oh yeah, sounds romantic," Mai snorted.
She thought it best not to mention that her inner girl had, in fact, been pretty enthralled with the waterfall.
"Well, you could have just told me, instead of...," He blanked for a second as his mind wrapped around what exactly had just transpired, then he gestured wildly to the ground where they'd been standing, "Doing whatever that was!" He insisted lamely.
She cracked a smile. "Well, maybe that wasn't necessary."
He grinned back mischievously. "Then maybe this isn't, either."
Mai felt his tight grip on one of her wrists as he pulled her toward him, nearly colliding with him on the way down. Together they fell in an unceremonious heap in the water, Mai shrieking once she became even colder.
Zuko wrestled his way out from under her limbs and was quick to pin her down before she could do the same to him. But to his surprise, he felt no resistance from her, receiving only another smile in return.
"Idiot," she rasped, almost fondly. He blinked and then laughed, knowing what she really meant.
I love you, dweeb.
As his grip on her slackened, she lifted her arms to encircle his neck, pulling him down to her again.