Thistle and Weeds*

Prologue

Giving her bedroom one final, lingering glance, Mai sighed and then pulled the door shut. She glided gracefully down the stairs of her parents' home, making sure not to trip on flowing scarlet robes. Her mother and father awaited her at the bottom, both beaming. It was her wedding day. But Mai had long ago given up on ever being happy.

~~~~~000000~~~~~

When the ship rounded the last bend and Capitol City came into sight, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation held his breath for a moment. He was home again, though a part of him still refused to believe. After three years away, the Fire Nation had faded in his mind, becoming sepia tinted and dull rather than rich and vibrant, and often, he had given up any hope of ever returning. But here he was. And there were the Great Gates of Azulon. Zuko could almost forget about his Uncle Iroh chained up below deck and the terrible guilt that he felt. He smiled, forcefully pushing bad thoughts aside, and focused on Mai instead. Only she could make everything better.

~~~~~000000~~~~~

"Oh, Mai, you look stunning." Her mother, Akira, smoothed down a bit of scarlet, and then smoothed down a bit of her daughter's lovely ebony hair, before stepping back and admiring the sixteen** year old.

"Thanks," Mai replied dully.

It mattered to everyone else that she looked her best, but Mai honestly did not care. Her marriage to Taro Nakamura was arranged. She had agreed a few months ago, after intense pressure from both her mother and her father. The fight had gone out of her completely and Mai was empty inside, empty of feeling and empty of desire. She spoke mechanically, saying what was expected of her. Taro didn't seem to mind. She would be a pretty thing on his arm, a woman who could provide him with children. Conversation and love simply weren't part of the picture.

Taro wasn't vicious or cruel. She didn't hate him. Honestly, it would be better if she did. At least then, she would feel something. Instead, Mai hardly noticed when he was anywhere near. He was a moderately intelligent, moderately good looking twenty one year old, heir to his father's fortune, part of the home guard, even tempered and dull. Agni, he was dull.

If it hadn't been Taro, it would have some other young man, equally boring. What was the point in putting the inevitable off? So Mai accepted her fate and complied with everything. Now, she just wanted the ceremony over with. It was too public and too many eyes would be watching.

But after that came the wedding night and Taro would have expectations. Mai suspected that it would be dull as well.

~~~~~000000~~~~~

When he stepped off the boat, his sister, Azula, and her friend, Ty Lee, by his side, Zuko breathed in deeply as if the Fire Nation air could revitalize him. Guards surrounded them and a palanquin waited.

The prince turned around when he heard the rattle of Iroh's chains. Azula's men handled him roughly and shouted slurs at the 'traitor'. Zuko cringed and guilt flared once more. He wanted to stop them, break the chains and set his uncle free. Zuko had never wanted to see Iroh a prisoner. The old man stared straight ahead and straight through his nephew.

"Don't be an idiot, Zuko. He got exactly what he deserved." Azula's eyes gleamed coldly and she threw a quick glance over her shoulder. "Put Uncle Fatso out of your mind."

"He'll be all right," Ty Lee stated more gently.

"I, I guess," the prince conceded and averted his eyes. He wanted to slap Azula for disrespecting the old man. But he himself had done worse; he had betrayed his uncle. Forgiveness or any kind of reconciliation seemed impossible, the hole in his heart irreparable.

Once in the palanquin, anticipation and nervousness took over. How would he fit back into palace life? How would his father, Fire Lord Ozai, welcome him home? What would he do to fill in his time? Would his father begin to groom him? Or would he be relegated to second best, just like old times?

The closer they got to the palace, the beautiful red building looming in the distance, the sweatier Zuko's palms got and the harder his heart pounded against his rib cage.

"Seriously, I can hear your heart beating," Azula sneered. "What is your problem?"

Zuko wanted desperately to tell someone how he felt, but he had no one to confide in. Once he settled in, he would seek out Mai. She always listened without judgment. She cared.

She did care. What about this?

The prince's fingers grazed his huge scar, a scar that dominated the left side of his face. Mai didn't know what he looked like with the disfiguring mark. Perhaps it would be too much for her.

No! Mai doesn't care about things like that. It will be fine. It has to be fine.

The thought of no Iroh and no mother and no Mai was almost too much to bear.

Ty Lee, unaware of Zuko's inner torment, bounced on the cushions and smiled happily. "We're almost there, Zuko." In a gesture of friendship, the acrobat and chi blocker put her hand over the prince's and squeezed.

"Yeah," he agreed, pulling his hand away.

Ty Lee's smile vanished.

~~~~~000000~~~~~

Braziers and candles burned everywhere, illuminating the dark, old temple with warm, flickering light. Guests filled the space, friends of her mother's and father's, family and friends of the groom and his parents. Mai had no one there just for her. Her thoughts turned quickly to Azula and Ty Lee. She missed them, Ty Lee especially. But they were in the past, just like Zuko.

Zuko, if you hadn't left…..I know you didn't have a choice…..it's not fair. It's just not fair.

For the first time in weeks, Mai's mask cracked, just a tiny fissure, and she permitted her emotions a brief stint of freedom. The noblewoman felt a pang of longing and loneliness so strong that her knees buckled. Her pale gold eyes, perfectly made up, filled with tears. She struggled, one making its escape despite her efforts.

Let them think that somehow I care about this farce.

But no one noticed and the ceremony began. Mai mumbled her part while Taro spoke his in a loud, clear, proud voice. And then it was over and Mai was a married woman. Was she her mother now?

~~~~~000000~~~~~

No one had mentioned Mai. Did Ty Lee and Azula even speak with her anymore? Had things changed that much since he had left?

"Um," Zuko began tremulously as they neared the palace, "do you know what Mai's up to?"

"Oh, Zuko, it's been three years. Did you expect her to wait for you? Mai had no way of knowing if you would ever come home." His sister patted him on the arm and gave him an almost sympathetic look. It made Zuko uncomfortable. Azula was rarely sympathetic.

"What are you trying to tell me? Do you guys know something that I don't?"

"We don't know anything, Zuko. Mai hasn't written back to me for months. I want to see her too. Imagine her surprise when she sets eyes on all three of us." The acrobat, dressed in pink, wriggled a bit closer to Zuko. "She might have a boyfriend or something."

Zuko echoed the words. "A boyfriend?"

"Yeah, her mom was always trying to fix her up with one guy or another. Maybe one of them stuck." Ty Lee was well aware of the feelings Zuko and Mai once had for each other. She felt cruel, sticking the knife in like she was. Meanness did not come naturally to her. But her tongue seemed to have acquired a life of its own.

"Oh, I see." His heart aching, the prince leaned back into the cushions and wished that he could disappear.

~~~~~000000~~~~~

Mai walked stiffly alongside her husband.

Husband….how did that happen? I know how it happened, but I thought that my life would be different. I thought that I would marry someone I love. What difference does it make now what I thought?

Family and guests followed behind, creating quite a spectacle for the people of Capitol City. Citizens stopped and whispered and pointed at the couple. Mai squirmed and all she could think about then was making it back to her childhood home where the reception would be held.

Taro threw back his shoulders and strutted along like a peacock. Mai felt herself shrinking even further. When the royal palanquin came into view, he took Mai's elbow and gently moved her off to the side of the street so that it could pass unobstructed.

"I wonder who is inside," he whispered. "Perhaps it's the Fire Lord."

Who cares? Do you really think that the Fire Lord gives a thought to you?

As the palanquin passed, someone pushed aside the thick, red curtains.

~~~~~000000~~~~~

"Look," Ty Lee exclaimed. "It's a wedding procession. How romantic! One day that will be me."

Azula yawned and leaned her head back, completely uninterested. Zuko really didn't care about weddings, but he stretched forward anyway, past the acrobat, and poked his head out through the curtains.

Is that the bride? She's lovely. But she seems sad.

He stared hard at the couple that headed the procession and as they came closer, recognition slowly dawned. Mai was taller and her shape more womanly. But that unearthly pale skin, that hair, so dark and luxurious, that face, so beautiful, could belong to no one else.

"Mai," he managed to choke out. "It's Mai."

"Whaaa?" Ty Lee said disbelievingly. "Let me look again." She gave Zuko a little shove and stared hard at the bride. "Agni, it is Mai. She's married. Wow!" Part of her hurt for Zuko and part of her swelled with hope and triumph; maybe there was a chance for her now.

The princess yawned once more, making a show of it, stretching her arms above her head. "So she finally caved. What are you going to do now, brother?"

Zuko had no answer for that. And whatever bit of wonder his arrival back home had inspired, whatever hope for his future, evaporated.

Mai is married. Mai is married. Mai is married.

It was all he could think about now. If only he'd made it home sooner.

~~~~~000000~~~~~

"It's not the Fire Lord," Taro declared, sounding disappointed.

Mai gave the palanquin a cursory once over. A head protruded from the curtains; thick, shaggy, brown hair, unusually cut, gold eyes wide with surprise and a burn scar, huge and hideous. Somehow, the face was still remarkably handsome, the burn adding a sense of character to the even features.

"It's Zuko," she said faintly.

Taro couldn't make out what his bride had said. "Who is it?"

"It's Prince Zuko. His banishment must be over. I. I didn't know." Mai brought a hand to her mouth and held back a cry.

Why now? Why not a month ago? Everything could have been different.

"Oh, him," Taro replied dismissively. "I suppose we'll hear all about why he's back. Anyway, it doesn't matter. We have more important things to worry about."

He linked his arm through Mai's and planted a kiss on her cheek.

Maybe you do. For me, nothing is more important than Zuko.

*Title taken from the Mumford and Sons song of the same name. It (the song) struck me as fitting somehow. Besides, I like the title.

**I'm aging Mai up just slightly (a few months perhaps) so that she is of official marrying age.


A/N: I had this particular idea quite awhile ago but sort of put it aside. I was looking for something a little different to write but still Maiko. I'm hopeful that this story will keep me inspired. Tough times are ahead for our favorite pair (most of which I haven't given much thought to yet). Feedback is greatly appreciated.

Alabaster