A/N: Sooo, this was actually supposed to go into my prompt series, but as you can see, it kinda turned into less of a drabble and more of a stand-alone sort of piece. So it gets to be special by itself...how fun. Sorry for the ridiculous amount of angst and slight bipolarity, by the way. Not really sure how that happened, and not really sure how realistic it is. But I enjoyed it :D Even with all of the crazy month-long (yup, months) that it went through. Yup so anyway, enjoy the insane love/hate Maikoness that goes down here! Don't forget to review!
Mai couldn't believe she had been so foolish. She really should have seen it coming. She hated herself for it now.
She hated how the first time had been the last—how the last had been the only. And more than anything, she hated him.
But, in all fairness, she hadn't known it would be any of those things at the time. As much of a cynic as she could be, she never expected it (them) to end. Especially like that.
It really wasn't fair at all.
The unfurled letter snuck into her line of sight every now and again, sitting innocently on her desk in the corner. What she wouldn't give to have that parchment pinned to something and incinerated on the spot...yet, it remained where it was, half-read (because honestly, the first line had been more than enough for her) and nearly undisturbed.
The previous night still burned brightly in her mind, forever scarring her. She remembered how she had felt hopeful waiting for him outside the regal burgundy curtains of the war room, imagining him pushing, no, bursting through the fabric with a flourish and an actual smile upon his face. But when he finally emerged, his face was surprisingly neutral, his lips drawn tight in badly disguised consternation.
Really. Apparently the occasional smile was too much to ask. But she wasn't one to talk.
She touched him lightly on the shoulder and listened as he described the meeting—the meeting that he had been looking forward to for over three years—the meeting upon which he claimed his honor hinged...the meeting that she knew was really only a vehicle to win over his father's affection. But Mai knew a lot of things Zuko didn't.
His words painted a positive picture, but his voice was strained and troubled. She noticed the way his eyes only looked ahead, how oddly focused they were, the way they always were when something was bothering him. Mai supposed that she shouldn't have been surprised; she knew that look on him well enough by now. But it was more than just the usual moodiness.
There was something else there...he wasn't telling her something.
He told her he had behaved exactly how his father wished he always had—the father whose portrait they were now standing in front of—the same one whose ugly glare could penetrate the entire hall. (Mai had always believed that the painting resembled him in more than just likeness.)
She was about to inquire further in a non-prying manner but then he uttered the words that had eventually led to that certain predicament.
"But I wasn't me."
Under normal circumstances, Mai might have teased him then about how he picked the wrong time to have a serious identity crisis. After all, he had enough on his plate already, considering the following day was the day of the eclipse, so the last thing Zuko needed was to be distracted by something stupid like that.
But all sarcasm went out the window the instant she caught a glimpse of his face. His head was bowed, eyes were closed, eyebrows were furrowed in frustration. His hands were balled into fists in an all-too-familiar stance, the knuckles turning white from the pressure.
Quickly, her hands flew to cover his, willing him to loosen his grip by massaging small circles across the backs. His eyes opened briefly at her touch, his expression softening when his eyes met hers for a moment. Slowly, he traded clenched fists in favor of her own hands, moving them lightly up to her forearms before settling around her waist.
He held her silently but refused to look directly at her, ashamed and afraid of what she was thinking about him. He missed the rare look of concern on her delicate features until her fingertips lifted his chin, the gentle sensation sending a shiver through his body.
Her eyes implored him, willed him to say something, anything to explain his current behavior. He only confused her more when his lips grazed her cheek, seeming almost apologetic. He left a soft trail across her jaw before meeting her mouth in a weak kiss.
It was over before Mai could even process what was happening. Zuko had pulled away slightly, his forehead and nose still brushed against her own. All he offered as an explanation was a nearly strangled "I'm sorry, Mai," and "I need to be alone," before disentangling their arms and setting off at a quick pace to his quarters.
The portrait of Ozai glared viciously on.
Nearly an hour later, Mai found herself outside the door to Zuko's room.
An hour had been as long as she could allow Zuko to think about whatever had happened on his own. It hadn't been for selfish reasons or because she was impatient, even though she admittedly did hate waiting around, feeling like she couldn't do anything to really help him. She needed to see him again only to prove to herself that he was okay. She knew him long enough to know that he had a tendency to make situations worse by thinking in solitude, either by blowing things out of proportion or by just beating himself up in general. Heck, she was surprised she had let him go that long.
The door was ajar, as if he had expected her to come along eventually. Mai gave the doorframe a few light knocks before crossing the threshold. She found him sitting on the edge of his bed, his form crumpled and very un-prince-like, despite the fact that he still wore his formal royal clothing. That in itself worried her; she knew how much he hated wearing the heavy layers of formal wear, and he usually made it a point to free himself from them at the earliest opportunity.
He had looked up at Mai for a second when she first entered the room, but his head returned to his hands an instant later. She sat down next to him on the bed, carefully wrapping her arms around him and resting her chin on his shoulder.
"Hey," she said quietly, almost afraid to break the silence. He lifted his head again, this time holding her gaze.
For a half a second, she didn't recognize him, and she found herself feeling more anxious than she should have been.
Mai hesitantly raised a hand to his cheek, her long fingers tenderly tracing the outline of his scarred ear. "Did you figure anything out yet?" She asked, only realizing after it had come out of her mouth that, judging by the way he had been acting, she may have been better off not knowing. Clearly, he had. Otherwise, he wouldn't have the appearance of a man who had just signed his life away to a hopeless cause. To what cause exactly, Mai had no idea.
He stiffened a little under her touch, and the tension in his body increased noticeably. For the second time that evening, he purposely avoided eye contact, instead settling for the flickering candle on the bedside table. Out of the corner of her eye, Mai could see the flame rise and fall, irregular in rhythm yet perfectly in sync with Zuko's breathing.
Mai sighed, wishing he would stop being so dramatic. "Zuko, look at me," she said quietly, using her other hand to cup his cheek and turn him towards her. "Whatever it is, just tell me."
He shook his head weakly. "Can't," he muttered, his voice foreign and cold. Internally, Mai hoped this conversation would decide to go somewhere soon.
"Why not?" She tried stubbornly, frowning.
His face twisted angrily, the hard lines of his jaw suddenly prominent. "I just can't, ok?" He half-shouted, pulling her hands off his face and practically throwing them away, his eyes finally blazing to life. "Why is that so hard for you to understand?"
This wasn't what Mai had in mind when she thought of somewhere.
"That's what I'm trying to do, you idiot. I'm trying to understand. It's not my fault you're being so difficult," Mai retorted evenly, locking her eyes with his.
"Well stop trying then! I don't care if you understand or not! It's not your problem, it's mine!" He was yelling now, although his voice broke at some intervals.
Zuko balked a little at the word. "What?" He said disbelievingly.
"I shouldn't have cared," Mai said dismissively, too dismissively. The significance of the words, in relation to Mai herself, was too obvious. Zuko froze, immediately recognizing his mistake and the very, very slight crack in her facade, as she rose from the bed.
"Mai, wait!" He grabbed her hand to prevent her from leaving. "I-I'm sorry, I didn't mean any of that. I like it—no, I love it when you care about me." He took a deep, shuddering breath, the troubled look returning full-force. "But...I can't. I just can't..." Suddenly, his face was buried between her neck and shoulder. "I'm sorry...I can't..."
An instant later and she was pressed tightly against him in an embrace. Mai could feel the shudders wracking his body, although she was certain he wasn't crying. He couldn't be crying.
His hands were gripping her back fiercely, and his arms around her were nearly bone-crushing. Mai could feel his heart pounding out of control, his chest pressed as close as possible to her own. She just about pulled away from it all, in order to demand what was wrong with him. But if Mai was completely honest with herself, she would admit that she was afraid now, and that was what held her back.
In all of the years that she had known Zuko, she had never seen him quite like this. The closest incident to this had been when she was ten and he eleven, when his mother had completely vanished from his life.
When she really deliberated upon it, she supposed that this, in retrospect, hadn't been that much different from before. In his desperate embrace, she felt herself yet again become the shy little girl with a hopeless crush on the prince, trying to comfort him and reassure him that he wasn't alone in the world. And she saw in him the hurt little boy who never got anything he truly deserved, but still made her feel significant, a part of his world.
No, it was no different from that now, Mai told herself. No different at all.
And that was the moment when Zuko decided to pull his head back, and Mai's entire thought process went blank. Dark amber had locked onto molten, smoldering gold, and Mai's mouth went dry. And then he was kissing her, his mouth burning against hers, and she slammed her eyes shut.
If her mind had remained with her for just a moment longer, she may have wondered what had brought about the sudden change in his behavior. But all her mind could wrap around was him, completely enraptured with the way his tongue was playing with hers.
His hands had gone to either side of her face, his calloused thumbs roughly tracing her jaw line. Mai's own hands had found their way around Zuko's broad shoulders, dragging her onto his lap before she knew what she was doing.
Through all of this, the heated kiss had still not been broken, and it continued until Zuko decided to move his lips continually downward. His mouth glided across her neck, covering her skin with his lips, eventually moving upward until he reached the spot right under Mai's earlobe, causing a low, almost inaudible moan to emanate deep within her throat. Zuko's eyes shot wide open for a moment, and Mai felt his hot breath hitch in his throat and something almost foreign press between her legs, which had somehow become wrapped around Zuko's hips.
He was hesitating now; she could feel it, and she couldn't help but be a little bothered by it. Their time a short while ago on Ember Island had introduced them to this realm of intimacy, but it had never gone beyond this point. There had never been a need to. But there was definitely need in his eyes now—unquestionable and in its rawest form. He needed her. Mai felt a shiver run down her spine.
But he wouldn't without her permission, because it was Zuko, after all. The question came silently, in the form of his trembling lip and nervous but gentle hands cradling her face.
When she didn't respond immediately, his lips fell upon her cheek, and she felt him murmur her name, along with another slew of apologies and pleas, against the skin, begging for her consent.
Up until this point, the only thing holding her back was her loathsome upbringing. Hours upon hours of instructions in becoming a demure, silent, lifeless noblewoman. Her mother had asserted the fact that affections of this sort were for the lowest of the low, and a future noblewoman such as herself shouldn't ever sink to that level, shouldn't waste her time with that sort of thing, for there were greater responsibilities at hand.
She decided right then and there that she didn't care anymore. It wasn't about rationality or all of the annoying rules that her mother had tried to control her life with. It was about comfort and real, actual feelings she had been taught to live withoutand giving him the few moments of reprieve from whatever problem was plaguing his mind.
And so her mouth pressed firmly against his once more, her hands blindly fiddling with the diadem upon his head. With a little frustration, the piece fell to the ground in a loud thump, the long tendrils of his hair spilling into her fingers. She felt his hands fly to her own hair in response, tugging at the updo until it was loose enough to pull through. The pins joined the crown on the floor by the bed, her hair slipping down in a quick, ebony wave out of its former position and into his awaiting hands.
Through his searing kisses, she vaguely registered Zuko standing up and placing her down on the bed. He held her firmly in his grasp, pushing her backwards until her back rested against one of the large, ornate bedposts.
He broke away momentarily, loosening the tight hold that her arms had on his neck. His own hands left her waist, leaving her confused at the loss, until she saw him begin to ease the broad-shouldered, decorative armor over his head, which he then carelessly tossed to the ground. She had to wonder a little at that. Normally Zuko would whine incessantly about how the armor had to remain in flawless condition and would take any necessary measures to ensure that it did. She smirked a bit, wondering if she had been the cause of this sudden brashness.
But the smile was gone in an instant when he cupped her face again, his hands nearly burning her face. She could feel his element threatening to break through his skin, his hands shaking slightly in an attempt to contain it. There was a thrill in walking the very thin line between danger and pleasure with him; in fact, it was the main reason that she liked their newfound intimacy so much. But she trusted him completely—she was certain that he would never hurt her.
Her eyes fluttered shut when his lips found hers again. Occasionally his mouth would linger, soundlessly forming her name against her own, causing her entire face to blaze. She had to curse the fact that his simple presence there made all coherent thought entirely impossible, that she was just the slightest bit more like the foolish girls she had made an effort to set herself apart from.
In her mind's exceptionally hazy state, she almost failed to notice the battle that their hands had begun with each other's clothing. The complicated sashes that she had so carefully tied that morning surrendered to Zuko's fumbling fingers, and she half-sensed her own hands pulling relentlessly at his many layers of robes.
He pressed delicate kisses to the base of her neck, her collarbone, her shoulder, as he lowered her body to the plush mattress. Her breath caught in her throat, her hands tugging at the dark locks tickling her skin. He moaned quietly, the sound muffled against her skin, yet she could still feel the slight vibration in his throat and the shiver that it sent through her body.
It was only when Mai felt the slight chill of the late summer breeze coming through an open window on her skin that she realized how bare she was. How bare he was. Her eyes flew open, hands rushing to grip his shoulders and push him back. Zuko looked down at her with some confusion, his arms pressed into the bed on either side of her, keeping his full weight off her. Mai's gaze slid down, taking in the sight of him, his naked, taut chest heaving in time with his ragged breathing. The air around them was heavy and hot, despite the fact that he was restricting his bending. But his eyes belied all of it, more lucid than they had been the entire night. They were trained directly on hers, almost so intense that she had to look away.
But no. She wouldn't. She trusted him.
Her eyes met his with equal fervor, saying everything she couldn't voice. And he understood.
All she could perceive was those eyes, infused with passion, need, and suddenly, doubt, pain, and complete, utter regret.
She remained in his arms afterward, wrapped tightly with him and the slightly burnt silken bed sheets above them.
It would be ludicrous to say it was perfect. Given that nothing with them ever was, she hadn't really expected it to be.
He could have been a little gentler. He could have pretended to act like it wasn't the worst thing he'd ever done. He didn't say much (although maybe that was a good thing.)
Not to mention that he almost burned her by accident...luckily he had grabbed a fistful of the sheets just in time.
But it didn't change the fact that it was with him. When the other facts were compared to that, she found that they didn't even matter.
She stroked his chest gently, tracing the subtle lines of muscles earned from days of running agonizing drills and heeding a too-wise man's advice aboard a steely vessel. His own hands trailed absentmindedly up and down her sides.
He had been quiet for too long. She was more than worried.
Mai lifted her head from his shoulder, a slender finger on his chin turning him to face her. There was a deep sorrow in his eyes, the same that she had hoped would have vanished by now. Except it felt more directed at her now.
She'd noticed how careful he had been with her ever since their labored breathing had ceased, treating her like an expensive porcelain doll. Like he was a child ashamed of a secret wrong, waiting with bated breath for the punishment to come.
Mai sighed a little. "Zuko, I'll be fine," she murmured.
"But it'll hurt," he croaked out, his voice scratchy from disuse. His hands on the small of her back pulled her closer. "I don't want to hurt you."
She shook her head against him. "Stop worrying. It feels better already," she reassured him again, pushing the still-damp locks out of his face. But his eyebrows only creased more, his eyes even more distant, his fingers still skimming her slight frame. His thoughts were clearly elsewhere, but she didn't press him this time.
She pressed a quick kiss to his lips. "Enough. Just sleep," she muttered before settling into him again.
She didn't know that he hadn't slept at all.
She didn't know that he had murmured soft apologies for soon-to-be committed wrongs into her hair the entire night, after he was sure she was asleep.
She didn't know about how painful it was for him to see her small, sleepy frown as he detached her arms from him the next morning; how he knew it would only be the beginning of her sadness.
Or about how close he was to changing his mind.
Or about how, just seeing her there, apart from him, he missed her already.
She only knew the absence of his warmth when she awoke that morning, the slight loneliness she felt as she dressed alone.
It was only through the untying of a red ribbon and the unrolling of parchment at the end of the day that she knew anything at all.
It fell to the floor, and so did she.
She could only hope, as her blurry gaze drifted towards the horribly visible palace, that it would be the first, last, and only time she would shed tears over him.