I just recently finished Book 3 and although I admittedly almost supported Zutara for a second in Book 2, watching the third season pulled me back in the right direction; Kataang and Maiko are truly the only options. There's just something about the troubled, grumpy, awkward couple that draws me to them, no matter what series it is.
I've found that the majority of Maiko fics involve her being pregnant or one/both of them dying or not ending up together (so how is that even Maiko?). I'm just taking the drama down a notch and settling for an illness-fluff story. I did my best to keep them in-character, so I do hope you enjoy!
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender :'(
A Comforting Warmth
A blazing sun hung high in the azure sky, triumphantly sending out waves of heat and rays of light after having successfully won a battle against the clouds.
The Fire Nation was bustling with its everyday activities, the usual din echoing around the walls of the city as the people talked and laughed together.
However, a certain house was a bit more active than others, as it normally was.
The recently-crowned Fire Lord Zuko hurriedly dressed himself appropriately for the meeting he was hosting that day; the Fire Nation was going to soon begin sending some of its students to other nations in order to learn different cultures, and a few details had yet to be discussed at this point.
Sensing that he was on the verge of being tardy, Zuko was presently beginning to fume in annoyance as a means to cover up his apprehension. "Crap!" He muttered as he slipped into his shoes. "Where is it?" He sent his fiery gaze about his bedroom in search of one particular item.
"Looking for this?" A bland voice, tinged with the tiniest hint of amusement that only he would ever be able to catch, asked from behind him.
Zuko spun around to face the other occupant of the bedroom.
Mai had her hands stretched out toward him, presenting him with the ceremonial hairpiece of the Fire Lord.
"Oh." He sighed, his fierce eyes losing some anxiety. Mai let a small smirk cross her lips as she glided behind him with the gracefulness of a shadow spirit. She quickly arranged his longish hair into a neat bun before inserting the hairpiece. "Thanks." Zuko, too, allowed his lips to be pulled up into a small grin.
As nonchalantly as possible, he attempted to slip his arm around her waist, but just as always, she had that uncanny ability to predict his movements and had evaded him before he even knew what was happening.
"You shouldn't worry so much." She soothed in her irresistibly raspy voice as she appeared before him. A brief look of confusion crossed his expression before his eyes met hers, two pairs of deep gold locking together. Her eyes used to make him unsettled, as he felt he was looking back at his own horrid self, but over time, she had changed those feelings; rather than seeing his own flaws, he now saw all the good that she had placed in him.
"I can't help it." His voice sounded a little sour, despite how much he had improved on demolishing that nasty little habit of his. But Mai took no offense at all; she knew it was just how he habitually spoke, and she found it very admirable that he was trying to better himself. "It's been pretty hectic lately. The students who intend to go still haven't handed in all their documents and-" he was about to ramble on, as he liked to do when he was flustered, but his girlfriend knew precisely how to handle him.
"And they're all taking too long and you have better things to do than wait around for them, right?" She finished for him. "Zuko, there's no rush. Things take time. The Fire Nation wasn't built in a day, you know, and you can't expect to change it entirely in just a few weeks." He shot her a half-frustrated, half-helpless look and her expression softened ever so slightly. "Everyone knows you're doing your best- even beyond that, actually. We all know that, so just take your time and make improvements little by little; the sun is composed of individual flames, after all." Mai usually was not one to sound poetic, but Zuko absolutely melted inside whenever she was.
Hearing the truth in her words, he sighed again, letting his worries drift away with the air; yet again, she reminded him exactly why there was no other person in the entirety of the universes or the spirit worlds whom he would rather have by his side.
"You're right." This time, she let him slip his arm around her waist and he kissed her briefly. "Thanks, Mai."
"Don't mention it." They embraced quietly for a moment before she spoke up again. "Have you eaten yet?"
"Yeah, just a little while ago. Have you?"
"I will. As soon as you go off to your meeting and leave me alone again like always with nothing to do." She shrugged. Zuko's face dropped into a frown and Mai had to hold back a snicker. "I'm just teasing." Effortlessly, she whisked up to him and kissed his cheek. "Now get going. I'll be here when you get back, just like always."
"Okay." He mumbled regretfully; of course he enjoyed his role as Fire Lord, but there were times he honestly just wanted to take a day off and spend more time with her. "I'll see you in a few hours."
"Go!" She huffed with false urgency. "You're going to be late for real, now."
"Right." Swiftly, he leaned in and kissed her one last time before he headed for the hallway.
Almost instantly, servants and guards huddled around him, asking politely if he needed anything more. As she had done her whole life, Mai stood back and watched as he walked away from her.
Even now that they were living together and were so secretly infatuated with one another, every time she watched this scene, it struck her with a fresh new pain in her chest; every time, she could not help but wonder if this would be the last time she would witness him walking away like that, if his back would be the last thing she would ever see of him.
She shuddered internally as stinging thorns pierced her heart with worry, emotions of fear and longing and love she had never felt with anyone else in her entire life. She was certain that she felt more feelings when she was around Zuko for only one minute than she had in her entire childhood, and she was still not entirely used to the new onslaught of emotions.
Sometimes it hurt, or rather, a lot of the time it hurt, but those few rarer times when it did not, the moment he came home to her every night and wrapped his strong arms around her firmly, powerfully outweighed all the worries with something much more riveting.
She brought herself back to reality when she finally realized he had stepped out of sight. She could not help but feel forlorn, although she knew fair well he was not the one at fault for that; it was simply how she had been raised to feel, with every word going unheard, every tear remaining unshed.
Holding back a heavy sigh, she squared her shoulders and forced her pace forward, heading off to get some breakfast before training.
A weary Fire Lord trudged back through the streets toward his palace, flanked by several guards and advisers.
Although his step was a bit exhausted, Zuko was mentally elated and even let that familiar tiny grin show on his face, a fairly new blessing that the people of his nation had only recetly been able to relish.
As Mai had suggested, patience had been a virtue.
Well, perhaps she had not said it exactly that way, but ultimately her encouragement was the same. The matters had been settled after a few hours, letting Zuko return home with a much easier conscious; plus, the fact that he had arrived a little earlier than usual was an added bonus.
He was already beginning to plan out how he might surprise Mai, even though he was not normally one to surprise someone in such a manner, and she was not particularly fond of surprises herself. But for some unknown reason, he simply felt in a much lighter, better mood for once; perhaps it was the reenergizing rays of the sun, or just relief that something had gone smoothly in his new career.
Of course, it was just too pleasant to have lasted long, as if it were some cruel plot to let him be happy for a moment before that miniscule solid stone was ripped out from under him, allowing him to plummet into a new lava pit of despair.
Zuko dismissed his guards as he headed up the stairs to the palace, entering through the front doors and then making his way to his and Mai's room. As he had suspected, the room had been tidied and was now vacant of any other occupants, and so he took the chance to freshen up and change into more comfortable clothing. He removed the hairpiece and let his long bangs fall loose once more, just barely shielding a fraction of his scar.
He was about to head out to look for his girlfriend when he heard a loud stampede erupt from the hallway. Before he could even begin to wonder what was amiss, an anxious knock that tried to sound refined to no avail came on his door.
"What is going on all of a sudden?" The Fire Lord snapped as he opened the door to face a trembling servant.
"F-Fire Lord Zuko!" The man cried. "Lady Mai has collapsed!"
"What?" Zuko barked, fright and anger causing his blood to boil like a volcano. "When did this happen? Where is she?" He found his voice already raised into a yell, more out of fear than of anything else.
"I-In the training grounds, in the courtyard." The man replied.
But before he had even finished, Zuko had vanished, racing through the halls and out the doors, past the shuffling figures of people rushing every which way in confusion and terror. He pelted his way through, his mind blank with seemingly nothing and everything.
Within only seconds, the courtyards were in sight, as well as a group of people. Guards and healers alike huddled at a distance while only one woman healer knelt on the ground next to the hunched, yet somehow still elegant form of his beloved.
"Out of the way!" Zuko ordered, to which the people of the palace obeyed eagerly, somewhat more relieved now that the Fire Lord had arrived. "Mai!" He shouted when he was close enough. He reached her side and fell to his knees in his haste. "Mai! What happened? Are you okay? Why did you collapse?" He shot questions like arrows as the healer's eyes widened in surprise at his sudden arrival; Mai herself was also fairly shocked.
"Zuko? What are you doing here? I thought you were at the meeting." Her voice sounded normal for a split second until he noticed her wince.
"That's not important! What happened?" He repeated, exasperated before turning his attention to the healer. "Is she okay?"
"Zuko!" Mai cut him off abruptly and he quickly looked back to her, his eyes filled with a tumult of emotions. "It's okay. I was training a bit and felt a little woozy, but as I was about to stop, I just stumbled a bit. I guess everyone jumped to conclusions and immediately started this chaos." She trailed off in a mumble, even though she was secretly almost flattered for the concern.
"Is that true?" He addressed the healer; he had known Mai long enough and he knew her well enough to be the type that would brush off a stab wound as a scratch. The older woman replied in a calm tone.
"It appears she merely has an upset stomach." She informed him. "Perhaps something did not sit well with her from this morning's breakfast." She offered.
"Oh." Mai blinked slowly. "I guess that does explain a few things..." she muttered to herself.
"Are you sure that's what it is?" Zuko checked. The healer nodded reassuringly.
"It may be a bit of a sleepless night, but I assure you that by tomorrow you'll feel much better, My Lady."
"Is that so?" She queried. "Well, thanks for your concern, but I don't think it's necessary." Mai huffed before she glared up at the wide-eyed crowd around them. "Now if you'd all be so kind as to leave us in peace?" Her tone suggested that there was nothing to argue about, and gradually the courtyard was cleared until only two remained. "I thought they'd never leave." Mai groaned.
"Are you really okay?" Zuko looked her over for probably the twentieth time in the past minute. "Why would you collapse during training from a mere stomachache? Something's wrong..."
"Zuko, were you even listening to a word I just said?" She rolled her eyes. "I said I was taking a break and simply stumbled. I'll admit, it hurts a little, but I'm not going to die."
"So it does hurt." He clarified.
"That's not the point." She refuted.
"What did you eat?"
"Calm down. If you knew which chef prepared my breakfast this morning he'd probably never find another job for as long as he lives; if he even lives at all." She commented, half-serious. But when she noticed the genuine concern in his eyes, she knew she had no other option but to try and ease his conscious again. "Zuko, I'm fine." She assured him with a smile, her warm palm pressed against his cheek.
"Are you really? That healer said-"
"I don't care what she said. She isn't me and she doesn't know how I feel- which is fine. How many times do I have to say it until you understand?"
They still knelt in the grass, Mai's posture slightly slumped forward, the hand that was not presently caressing his cheek limply covered her stomach. Zuko was silent for a moment, letting her words sink in, relishing the warmth of her hand. "So how did that meeting go?" She wondered, doing her best to get the subject off of her apparently fatal stomachache condition.
"It went well. Really well, actually." He replied, slightly less worried now, but still worried enough.
"That's great." She smiled sincerely up at him, and Zuko was just about to believe that she was actually fine.
But just as he was about to reflect her smile, Mai's hand suddenly slipped from his cheek all too quickly. She hissed in a breath through her teeth as she brought her hands to her sides, crossing her arms over her body and hunching forward, her shimmering onyx hair spilling out over her shoulders.
"Mai?" Zuko quickly reached out to her, but recoiled, afraid that touching her may hurt her further. He was about to call out for assistance when her clipped yet firm voice stopped him.
"Zuko, don't. Please."
He looked down at her and their eyes locked. He saw a subdued pain behind her calm irises, as though she had been beating it back the entire time, but now it had simply slipped past to reveal itself.
She was begging him not to call anyone else. He knew how she could be, how she hated being doted on by other people; her entire childhood had consisted of being spoiled with false emotions of happiness, therefore, now when people waited on her with true feelings of concern, she felt so terribly uncomfortable that it did much more harm than good.
In seconds, he read in her eyes what he could not hear from her mouth.
She did not want anyone else to see her like this; she only wanted him right now, just as she always had.
Zuko comprehended her will instantly, even though he did not approve of it one bit. Yet he knew better than to blatantly go against her wishes; she would only become upset with him for some extended period of time, and during such times, neither of them felt particularly happy. So in his mind, Zuko swore that he would abide by her unspoken wishes for as long as he could without causing her any more harm; he would take care of her himself until he no longer felt he would be able to spare her from further injury.
"Okay." He agreed begrudgingly. "But if you're not better by tomorrow, I'm calling in the healers." He bargained. She snorted indignantly, but did not argue; this suggested to him that she felt well enough to believe things would not have to go that far, which made him relax slightly. "Here, give me your arm."
He took her hand in his, and although she was startled at his actions, she did not refuse him; this just made him worried all over again, as it suggested she was unsteady enough to need his assistance without even trying to be stubborn first.
He pulled her arm over his shoulders and held onto her wrist with one hand as his other arm wrapped around her back and slim waist. He felt her stiffen, but whether it was at the contact or at some internal pain, he did not know.
Slowly, Zuko got to his feet, pulling Mai up with him. Initially, she tried to stand on her own, but evidently the pain got worse the more she moved, and before long she was leaning almost entirely on him for support. She stumbled beside him as he patiently waited for her, taking each step as slowly as she needed it to be.
As they passed other people, Mai shot Zuko a sidelong glance that said "Go on. Tell them" to which he was obliged to announce to the onlookers, "We're fine. Let us be."
Eventually, the pair managed to limp back to their bedroom, where Zuko clumsily kicked the door shut while still fighting to support her weight. He brought her over to the bed and carefully sat down beside her, where she slid out of her shoes and hurriedly yanked her arm away from him; any other person would see her actions as being ungrateful, but Zuko could not help but grin because he knew that she was just embarrassed.
"Do you feel any better?" He clasped his hands together tightly in his lap, a subtler way of channeling his anxiousness that had taken him nearly half a year to master without flames.
"Not particularly." She replied dryly; the fact that she was admitting to this so easily suggested she was feeling quite lousy right now.
"I think you should just take it easy and get some rest for now."
"Really? I never would have thought that was what you had in mind, considering you brought me back to our bedroom." Her voice dripped with sarcasm, yet it was not the biting, bitter kind, but rather the kind that said "you are so helplessly in love with me, you idiot." Not that she was complaining.
"Do you want me to bring you some food?" He offered, struggling to find something to make himself useful.
"Not hungry." She mumbled. "And besides, I don't think I'd be able to keep anything down for very long anyway." She added quickly as a painful throbbing erupted in her stomach. Mai hissed as she clutched her sides again, biting her lip until she tasted the rusty tang of blood.
"Mai!" The throbbing continued harshly so that she could hardly feel his warm hand on her back. She tasted bile rise in her throat but forced it back, her breath hitching as she did so, causing her to choke.
The atmosphere tensed tenfold as Zuko prepared to shout out for help, but Mai predicted what he intended to do and was intent to stop him. She removed one of her hands from her side and grabbed his free one, squeezing it tightly to restrain him from calling out. "Mai..." he looked at her with a strangled expression, unsure of whether he should heed to her desires or his own.
No matter how much she hated being looked over by healer's scrutinizing eyes, Zuko simply could not stand to see her like this. But Mai's stubbornness was fast-acting and firm, even though her body was the complete opposite right now.
"Zuko." She growled, her voice stern with a hint of warning in it. She glared up at him, that trademark feistiness still visible in those golden pools of amber. They reminded him that he had given her until the next morning before he would ask anyone for help, and after a moment, he sighed in defeat.
"I'm better now." She snapped, straightening up, trying not to show a disgusted expression on her face because of the distasteful tang in her mouth. "But I feel like I've swallowed a swamp-full of slim." She groaned, immediately contradicting herself. "Help me to the bathroom."
She dropped her feet onto the floor again and pushed herself up. Flustered, Zuko did the same and helped her over to the bathroom adjoining the bedroom. He stood by tensely as she washed her face, as if he expected her to keel over any second now.
The cold water she splashed over her skin did not feel as good as she thought it would, and she sputtered with a cough as a wave of dizziness crashed over her. But she gripped the sink tightly so that she would not stagger, and Zuko had not noticed; she wanted to keep it that way. As Fire Lord, he had enough worries on his mind on a day-to-day basis; he did not need to be concerned about her every time she stepped on a pebble.
She waited until the headache subsided before she shut off the water, indicating that she was finished, and Zuko led her back to bed. Her skin was even paler than usual and had a sickly feature to it, like a dazzling white lily on the verge of wilting. "Ugh. This is the worst." She moaned, pulling her legs up onto the bed with some effort.
"Have you ever even been sick before in your life?" Zuko suddenly asked, realizing that he failed to remember seeing her in such condition previously.
"Once, when I was six." She recalled. "But that was the only time I've ever had a cold. This is just some food poisoning or whatever, but that was my first and last flu ever since." Her voice was tart and taut, suggesting she did not want to revisit the matter of over ten years ago.
But Zuko felt differently; he wanted to know how she had been taken care of, and what he could do now to help her.
"What did your parents do?" He wondered carefully, entirely aware that this subject was as sensitive to her as his scar was to him. The glare she shot him then said "You just had to ask, didn't you?" He gave her a sheepish shrug in response and she sighed.
"The usual. It was just as seasonal cold so it was nothing serious. A few sniffs, some coughs, fatigue, headache, nausea, a fever..." She listed the symptoms as if they were nothing when assaulting the body of a six-year-old girl, while Zuko's eyes widened in apprehension with every word.
"My parents didn't really do much," she went on. "They knew it would look bad if people thought they were neglecting their only daughter, so they told me to act like I was healthy. I had to hold everything in until I got home at night and then take care of myself alone."
Zuko listened in silence as she went on, her voice becoming lower and more rueful, the tiny little slip of her tone that signaled to him that she was opening up her true feelings without fully realizing it. "Every time I sniffed or coughed in public, my father would give me this disgusted look that said every breath I was taking was wasted on me and could have been much more useful to someone more important."
Zuko squeezed her hand, half in anger and half in understanding as she continued.
"So I forced myself to get better, and after a few weeks my cold was gone. That's all there was to it." She finished quietly.
The crimson rays of sunlight that slanted in through the windows seemed to cover the bedsheets in blood for an instant.
Zuko put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in to him, which she had no objections to. He wanted to say something to comfort her, but was forced to restrain himself; whatever he may have said would only have sounded like pity or false understanding, and he himself knew full-well how degrading such things were.
So he simply held her a little longer, until the crimson turned to orange.
He thought she had dozed off, but upon the change of color, he felt her stiffen before she snorted in disgust.
"Gross. I may actually throw up this time." She glowered at the sheets. Zuko let loose a short chuckle, glad that she was back to her old self, for the most part until she went on. "No, seriously." She lifted her head to look up at him as her stomach lurched. "I may actually throw up this time."
"Oh." Zuko blinked down at her and her eyebrow twitched in annoyance as her stomach flipped again. "Oh." He repeated, finally seeming to realize what was about to happen.
He quickly scrambled off the bed and nearly fell onto the floor, only just saving his balance in the nick of time. He then took her hand with one of his and wrapped his free arm around her waist as he gingerly helped her off the bed. She flinched as her feet touched the ground and a new tinge of pain ruptured her insides. She began to tremble uncontrollably as her body gave in to its natural defense stages, preparing to expel the harmful things within her.
Zuko practically carried her to the bathroom sink since her legs were so unsteady. He watched her uneasily as she continued to tremble all over, coughing occasionally and trying to control her ragged breathing.
Mai did her best not to look at him, even though he was so close to her.
She hated this. Hated making him worry about her and making him tend to her when she easily could have handled this on her own. He should never have come back home early, and then he probably would not even have known about her ailments.
And she hated not being able to control her body. She would have preferred it was a bleeding wound that she could bandage and fight away the pain for, but this was something she was utterly powerless against. She hated that feeling, because it made her believe she was losing to something, that she was not strong enough, that all those years of training had been for naught.
But she also knew she could not blame Zuko for caring about her, as she would be doing the exact same thing right now if they had reversed positions.
The pain continued to assault her chest, making it harder to breathe by the second; it felt more like a curse that her body was slowly being eaten away from the inside out rather than a bad meal.
Zuko rubbed his palms in soothing circles over her back, her shoulders still shaking. He gently pulled her dark hair back, not wanting to have to look at her when she was in such agony, but at the same time unable to deter his gaze.
Another ripple tore through her stomach and at last Mai could not keep the bile back any longer. She whimpered as a plea to have Zuko look away so he would not have to see her like this. Zuko squeezed his eyes shut as she wretched into the sink, her entire body shaking violently.
He hated this.
Only able to stand by and hold back her hair as she spilled out her insides right in front of him.
She was the only person he had ever cared for in this certain manner, and all he could do when she was in pain was stand there.
At least in a battle he could protect her against blades or elements; in a battle, he would never allow her to be injured, and he would personally see to anyone who tried to so much as touch her.
But there was nothing he could do to protect her now, for the damage was already done.
His bending was powerless against this kind of battle, and he could only listen to her stifled gasps as she coughed. He stroked her hair, continuing to rub her back soothingly, sickened at the fact that he could practically feel her already slim body becoming even thinner. Her heart was pounding insanely rapidly, hammering against her ribcage so hard she knew he could feel it.
It seemed like eons until the tortured sounds finally stopped, and Zuko reopened his eyes to steal a glance at her. Her eyes were closed and she was panting wildly, her hands clutching the edge of the sink to keep herself from collapsing. She looked simply awful, and he somehow felt enraged at himself for that.
Her tense shoulders slowly relaxed a bit, but she appeared even frailer than ever before.
It was hard for him to imagine that this was the first time she had been sick to her stomach; Zuko had often gotten sick this way when he was younger, but as he grew older, the sicknesses gradually drifted away.
But for Mai, she had never experienced this before in all her life, so he knew it must have been terrifying to not have any control whatsoever over her body's actions. He had never seen her so defenseless before, and he knew that if he had not arrived home on time, she would have suffered through all of this just as she had the done in the majority of her life until only recently- quietly and alone.
Holding her tightly in one arm as she fought to regain her breath and composure, Zuko used his free hand to snatch a few cloths from the side of the sink. He covered the sink with one and wetted another with lukewarm water before he gently dabbed it over her face. Despite herself, Mai let slip a sigh as the wonderful sensation of the water seemed to heal her aching skin and she finally reopened her tired eyes.
"S-So," he muttered as he tossed the cloth aside. "Do you...feel any better?" He asked lamely, not knowing what else he could say at this point but knowing that he should be saying something. He waited for her sarcastic remark to sting his ears, but what reached them instead made him blink in surprise.
"Actually," she gave him a knowing look. "I feel better. A lot better, somehow." Experimentally, she shifted her weight to find that the uncontrollable trembling had ceased almost entirely.
"Really? Are you sure?" He looked her over again, and he had to admit that she did seem better.
"Just a little exhausted now." She confessed, her weary eyes backing up her statement.
"Well then you should get changed for bed. Do you need me to help?" He offered.
"I'll be fine." She smirked a little at the fact that he had not fully realized what he had just asked.
"The last time you said that, you threw up." He reminded her.
"Yes, and now I'm all better. Just tired." She urged him to believe her words. He gave her a skeptical look for a long moment before he saw the usual feistiness resurface in her demeanor.
"Alright." He gave in. "I'll clean up here." He offered, letting his hand slip away from her back. She gave a small nod before slowly staggering back to their bedroom; Zuko watched her like a hawk until he was certain she would really be alright. "I'll be right here if you need me!" He called after her.
He thoroughly cleaned the sink, mentally groaning at the thought of what the servants would do if they ever found out that the Fire Lady had been ill and the Fire Lord had been the one to clean everything up afterward. He imagined most, if not all of them, would faint on the spot, which somehow made him slightly amused.
By the time he had finished, Mai reentered, dressed in her loose nighttime robes and pants. He left her alone to freshen up, which took three times as long as it normally did; he imagined she was rinsing her mouth out repeatedly until her mouth was numb from the water.
The sun had sunk halfway behind the horizon before he heard the door open once more. Mai emerged, looking much better than she had ten minutes ago, but still more exhausted than she had ever been in her life. Zuko raced over to help her, but she brushed him off; he relaxed then, for it was the final sign to proving that she was better now.
He closed the curtains so that only a small fraction of sunlight slipped into the room; the rays were now a deep golden yellow, not unlike the couples' eyes.
The two climbed into their shared bed, sliding under the covers as the shadows began to darken. Mai lie down on her back, still the tiniest bit queasy, and Zuko stayed sitting up, flicking his gaze down at her.
"Are you sure you're okay now?" He wondered.
"I'm sure." She sounded annoyed, but he could hear the smile in her voice. He reached down, and as his fingers made contact with her arm, he felt her shiver briefly.
"Are you cold?"
"...A little." She mumbled.
He smirked as he laid down beside her, sliding one arm beneath her shoulders and draping the other over her stomach. Focusing his energy, he summoned an iota of his bending abilities and awoke the fire within him, allowing the heat to trickle through his arms and up to his fingertips. Mai could not hold back the shiver as she felt his wonderful warmth spread throughout her body and she smiled, nestling closer to him. She pulled the blankets up over his shoulders and wrapped her arms around his neck, allowing him to rest his head on her shoulder.
"Better?" He wondered.
"Much." She replied.
For a long while, they remained that way, sharing their warmth with one another; Zuko may have had an eternal fire within him due to his bending, but there was something more enchanting about her natural warmth that made him feel incomprehensibly comfortable, a warmth he could never produce himself.
He closed his eyes even though he did not yet intend to fall asleep; likewise, Mai continued to stare up at the dark ceiling.
Zuko could hear the soft, steady flutter of her heartbeat beneath his ear. When he had first felt her pulse, he had immediately thought something was wrong, due to its unnatural slowness. However, he soon realized that, just like the rest of her, her heart moved at a calmer, more refined pace than most other people's. Now, the steady beat lulled him into a doze, halfway between consciousness and slumber.
Finally, Zuko brought himself to speak up, his voice breaking the silence.
"Mai." He said in his deep voice, and she curled her fingers around his hair, indicating that she was listening. "I know that what I'm about to say might sound like I'm being untruthful, but I just couldn't let it go when you mentioned it before."
He waited for a moment for her reply, but she merely waited for him to continue, and so he did. "I know I've told you before, but don't ever think that anything your parents said to you in the past was true; you're not useless, or an object to prove their status, and you're not a 'waste of breath'." He spat out the last phrase with venom, as if it was acid. "I don't care what anyone ever said about you. You're the strongest, smartest, most beautiful girl in the universes, and I'm not worthy of you, but I hope you'll settle for me." No one would ever believe that Zuko had such a tender side, except perhaps his mother, and now only Mai knew of it.
His girlfriend was silent for a long moment, but he could not pinpoint the source of her speechlessness just yet.
"Zuko..." she rasped. "I should be the one saying that. I mean, after all you've been through, and after all you've achieved, you're stuck with an average girl like me-"
"Don't say that!" He pushed himself up to look directly into her eyes through the veil of shadows. "I'm not 'stuck' with you, Mai; this isn't a punishment. And you're not beneath me or undeserving of me."
"So now do you understand how I feel?" She asked, staring into his eyes.
Zuko was taken aback for a moment before he realized what she had done. Then, he mentally smacked himself before he let a chuckle slip past his lips and he laid back down beside her.
"I'm sorry." He apologized. "I shouldn't have said that."
"Me too." She echoed. "We're equals."
"Yes." He confirmed. "We are." Mai carefully turned onto her side to face him, and he embraced her. "But really, Mai. You're none of those things your father said you were."
"And you're none of the things you're father said you were." She reflected. They both smiled in the darkness, moving closer to one another. "Thank you, Zuko." Mai whispered. "Not only for today, but for everything. Thank you."
"And thank you, too." He murmured into her ear. He brushed his fingers through her silky hair as he pulled her in closer. "I love you, Mai."
"I love you too, Zuko." She also hugged him tighter.
This was the one thing the pair always somehow managed to do; no matter what differences they may share in the morning, they had always made up before bed.
Mai kissed him sweetly and Zuko returned it with a gentle passion.
She rested her head on his chest and he listened to her deep breathing as she fell into slumber.
Pressed together in the perfect embrace, sharing the most loving feeling between them, the couple drifted off into a mutual sleep, blanketed in a comforting warmth that only they could ever share.
A/N: I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!