Summary: Mai is a clever girl – she sees the things most people don't. But sometimes she wishes she didn't, because maybe then she wouldn't have to be the one who makes the sacrifices.
A/N: I don't like Mai; I never have. I especially don't like Mai with Zuko. But the plot bunny visited me yesterday evening, and wouldn't leave me alone until I wrote this. Also, I look at it as compensation: poor Mai, if she knew what I am planning to do with her in another story of mine…
Word count: 2191
Disclaimer: [Insert witty text here which says that I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender]
With Loves Comes Sacrifice
I am not jealous because I don't trust you. I am jealous because I know you could do better.
Ever since she had come back from Boiling Rock and he had become the Fire Lord – or more likely since his Agni Kai with Azula -, something had changed between them, and not for the better. Of course, they had never been that really close – none of them was good at showing emotions and expressing mostly affection – he didn't dare to show his, and she was trained not to show hers. But they had always gotten along well and understood each other – that's what a relationship should be about, isn't it? The kissing and the cuddling, not to mention the power now within her reach, were only the bonus.
But then again, not long ago everything had changed. Foolishly, she had thought that as soon as she was back in the capitol, they would continue their courtship from where it was before his stupid letter. Well, they did got together again. He welcomed her with open arms – but with closed heart.
They were together, and they were not. Mai may have been impassive, but she wasn't stupid. They ate together, went for walks around the palace, even cuddled in the evenings when he had time – but it wasn't the same. She could feel that all the time his mind was somewhere else. Or, to be more precise: with someone else.
She had never liked the waterbender. She was too sweet, too naïve, too… open for her to like her. But there were things even Mai couldn't deny: the girl was beautiful on her own exotic way (and Mai had learned long time ago that beauty could be a more powerful weapon in good hands than any razor-sharp blade), she was a good bender and fighter, and had a nice, pleasant aura, that made her easy to like. She was as attractive to men as a flame to the moth; it was a proven fact by her numerous suitors.
No wonder then that she had caught Zuko's eye as well.
It's not like that he had said it out loud – he didn't need to. Mai saw it without help. It wasn't completely obvious, but her keen eyes saw the signs. Like he wasn't willing to talk about his time with the Team Avatar to her, but when he did talk, he did it with great enthusiasm. Like how frequently they wrote to each other. Like how when he showed her their letters – after all, he thought that he had nothing to hide from her - they were so full of inside jokes that she could hardly understand them. Like he had a smile, reserved for only the waterbender.
But then again, Mai was sure that even he didn't know about his affection for her; or at least he was denying it. Zuko was really an honorable man, and when he promised that he wouldn't break up with her again, she knew he meant it. She knew that if it was only up to him, they would be together as long as she wanted to, no matter how he felt.
Maybe that's why she dreaded so much their upcoming trip to Ba Sing Se.
When Zuko's coronation was over, all of his friends left the palace – they were needed elsewhere. But they all decided that they should meet again in three months in Ba Sing Se, when Iroh's teashop would reopen. She, as Zuko's girlfriend, was invited along, even though she was not part of the team officially. And she went, not matter how much she wanted to stay in the Fire Nation.
For her, the visit was pure torture. Iroh had never really cared for her, Zuko was preoccupied by his friends, who weren't her friends (really, she had only one friend left, who was miles and miles away from her, on Kyoshi Island). Zuko urged her to try to befriend them – the only problem was that she didn't want to. The Water Tribe warrior was such a fool, the Avatar too perky, the earthbender too tacky, and she had already told her opinion about the waterbender. About the Kyoshi warrior – well, Mai saw her more like an opponent, than a possible friend. They were both warriors, still on different sides, no matter what. And anyway, how could she befriend somebody who was together with that foolish boy whom Ty Lee had found so adorable?
So, mainly, she was left alone, which worked well for her. At least, this way, she was able to pay attention to her companions. Especially to Zuko.
At first, he carried out long and deep conversations with Katara. They recalled old tales, teased each other, laughed together, and casually touched each other – not in a romantic way, yet, somehow, Mai found these touches much more intimate in a way than the caresses she had exchanged with Zuko.
Then, on the second evening of their stay, everything changed. The sunset was close when she saw Katara leave the main room where all of them were having tea. A few minutes later the Avatar followed her outside. Then Zuko got up as well – Mai was sure that he didn't realize that the Avatar had left as well. Zuko was the first to get back, somehow unhappy. A few minutes after him came Katara and the Avatar – holding hands.
She didn't need to ask what had happened outside.
The next few days following the incident were even more torturous for Mai. It wasn't enough that she had to watch the Avatar and his new girlfriend all lovey-dovey – smiling, holding hands, exchanging chaste kisses and such smiles that Mai would have never dared to produce herself -, she also had to deal with Zuko.
The young Fire Lord's mood was even worse in that few days than it was before he had joined to the Team Avatar. He was moody, and brooding, and sometimes he snapped at her seemingly without reason. But Mai knew what his problem was – it was right in front of their eyes, even if Zuko was unable – unwilling - to see it.
Then, only three days before their planned departure, everything changed. Loud shouting disturbed her afternoon nap that day, coming from the Jasmine Dragon's small inner yard. She couldn't exactly understand the words being said, but she recognized the voices, and from the intonations she understood very well what was going on.
The Avatar and his girlfriend were having a row. A rather big one, if her ears weren't playing a trick on her.
The shouting lasted for almost twenty minutes – Mai was surprised that no-one had tried to calm them down. The she heard an indistinct whoos-sound – like a gilder being opened – and then, there was silence.
But not for long.
Mai was watching the scene unfold in front of her from her second storey window. Her curtains were closed, with only a two-inch gap between them, so she was sure that while she could see everything, no-one was able to see her.
It was Katara who first arrived – she couldn't walk straight, had her face in her palms, and was obviously crying. Zuko arrived not long after her – just like a mythical dragon rider going to battle, he was so sure, so confident, yet so gentle and caring as he took the weeping girl into his arms, soothingly caressing her long hair.
She couldn't hear what they were saying, but she didn't need to. She understood everything, knew everything from the way Zuko held her – he had never held her like that -, calmed her down – when she was upset, even he couldn't calm her down -, sat next to her at the foot of the enormous column, talking comfortably – they had never really had anything to talk about -, and slowly, making her smile – he could hardly ever make her smile.
At that moment, Mai knew what she had to do.
She wrote a short letter – at first, she considered doing everything in that letter, taking revenge on him, but then she decided otherwise. In her letter she only wrote that she wanted to talk to him – in her room, alone. She gave the letter one of Iroh's employees who happened to walk past her door, and asked him to give it to Zuko. When he was gone, Mai turned to her trunk, and started to pack.
It was some hours later, when the sun was almost completely over the horizon, when he arrived at her room. He gently knocked, then entered before she could have let him in.
"You said you wanted to see me." He stated the obvious, then took in the room; everything was neatly packed in her trunk, while she was sitting on her nicely made bed. "Why have you packed your things away?" he asked, surprised, as he started to walk towards the bed. "We are still staying a few days." It wasn't exactly a statement; it had an underlying meaning: even if you want to go back to the Fire Nation now, we are still staying, because I want to.
Mai held up her hand, telling him not to go closer to her. Zuko stopped in the middle of the room.
"Right now, it looks like I am not going back to the Fire Nation." She stopped for a moment, but continued before Zuko could have said anything. "But there's a caravan taking off tomorrow morning, going to the seaside. From there, it would be really easy to find a ship that would take me to Kyoshi Island." It seemed like a good idea; she hadn't seen Ty Lee in months.
"You don't want to go back to the capitol?" He asked, puzzled. Mai didn't miss that he hadn't added the 'with me'-part.
"It depends only on you." She said truthfully. "Tell me that you love me and want to be with me. Tell me that I am the only one for you and that you want to spend your life with me. Tell me that you want to make me your Fire Lady, and I'll pack everything out now, and stay here as long as you want to say, and when it's time to leave, I'll leave with you."
"Mai, I-" Zuko started, but Mai didn't let him finish.
"But tell me that you love me, but love Katara more, that you want to spend your life with her, want her to be your Fire Lady, and I am off tomorrow to Kyoshi Island, and I'll never bother you again, and you will be free from anything and everything you have promised to me." She knew she had to say that, and she rehearsed it in her mind many times, yet, it was so hard to say it out loud. "It's all right if you choose her; the only thing I am asking for to be honest with me. I don't want to bind you to myself if it would make you unhappy or unsatisfied. I want you to be happy, so if you choose her over me, I'll bear it with dignity."
For a long time, none of them said anything. Mai knew that she had to give time Zuko, even though she already knew his answer. She knew it before she started speaking. She knew it ever since she saw them together at the foot of the column that afternoon.
"I hope" spoke Zuko slowly, finally, not daring to look at her, "that you will have a great time on Kyoshi Island. Please, give my regards to Ty Lee."
Mai didn't want to pretend that her heart didn't break to little pieces as he said that, but deep down she knew that it was for the best. It was the best to end the things between them now, than let them to rot for years, leaving both of them unhappy.
Mai nodded in agreement, then stood up, and walked over to Zuko. She touched his chin with two careful fingers, and slowly tilted his head upwards, making him look into her eyes. She wanted to take this picture with her, no matter where she went after this. He, this boy, her first love, with his white skin and red scar, tentative smile and furrowed brows, and ever so expressive golden eyes, that shined like starts, and were they topazes, she would have worn them anywhere and everywhere.
She slowly leaned in, and softy kissed him; Zuko didn't resist. This was her goodbye – no words and tears, only a kiss. This was everything that she could afford.
When the kiss ended, she left the room without another word, leaving the motionless Zuko there. She needed to speak with the waterbender before she left. She had to let her know that she was only wasting her time with the Avatar, that she could do better, that he was only the jester, while the king was waiting for her, only for her.
This was her gift to them, the only thing she could give. She hoped they would use it well.
She hoped that they would be happy.
A/N: As a finishing note: while I was writing and revising it, there was one song – especially one verse – going on and on in my head. This was the Csillagok Aranya – Golden of Stars – from the musical Mozart! The verse roughly translates like this: Who loves you won't stand in your way/Who loves you knows when you have to go/Who loves you will let you go/Who loves you will understand you in tears. I think it matches this situation perfectly. The song is beautiful, by the way, I recommend it to everyone.