At first, things with Mai are comfortable and familiar in a boring sort of way that brings Zuko a certain degree of comfort in the years immediately after the war. And when the fact that they evolved into different people during Zuko’s months with the Avatar brings to light the faults in their relationship, their decade-old friendship is the undercurrent that buoys their bond on its worst days, calling them back to mend fractures and heal splits. They break up and get back together so many times in three years that Zuko’s advisors give up on considering the dark-haired beauty a real contender for the title of Fire Lady. Oddly enough, this suits Zuko just fine. As long as he is splitting up and getting back together with Mai on a consistent basis, the advisors keep their mouths shut about other eligible young ladies and stop pressing the idea of marriage.
Mai’s problems with Zuko don’t stem from his duties as Fire Lord. She also doesn’t care that he refuses to discuss his weekly visits with Azula. And when his search for his mother, hidden from Mai like so many other things, brings Ursa forth from a safe house kept by a branch of the White Lotus that not even Iroh knew about, Mai doesn’t bat an eye. She understands the need for secrets and was raised to never pry into others’ business.
Out of everything that could drive a wedge between Mai and Zuko (his hours as Fire Lord, her father’s apparent dislike of him, her distaste for his friends…), her real issue is the scar that branches out from the center of Zuko’s chest and the fact that he won’t be honest with her about how it came into existence.
They revisit the problem again and again. Whenever Mai catches sight of Zuko shirtless, it inevitably incites an argument so intense that Mai actually raises her voice. The fights become so frequent that he stops taking his shirt off during the increasingly few times they fall into bed together. Sometimes all it takes is the absentminded brush of his hand over his sternum to incite her wrath.
Zuko has just stepped out of the bath and is toweling off his hair when he realizes that Mai has let herself into his room. She sits in a chair by the bank of south-facing windows, long hair swept up into a chignon, a rectangle of parchment with a blue wax seal between her fingers. Her pale eyes are fixed on the center of his bare chest.
“You have a letter from that Water Tribe girl,” she says, voice carefully flat.
Zuko bristles at her words and her tone. “Her name is Katara,” he says. “You’ve met her countless times.” He crosses to his closet and pulls a black tunic free from its depths, ignoring the heated emotions blooming behind the lightning scar on his chest, three years older and no less intense.
“Five times, Zuko. I’ve met her five times.” Mai tosses the letter to the table on her left. It slides across the glossy surface and teeters for a moment before falling over the edge. The twenty-year-old Fire Lord watches the missive fall to the floor, waiting for whatever is coming next. It doesn’t take long.
“She knows, doesn’t she? I’ve heard her ask you about it.”
Zuko sighs. “Mai, I really don’t want to do this right now. I have a budget meeting in—”
“You told her about it, but you can’t tell me.”
“I didn’t have to tell her about it,” Zuko says. “She was there when it happened. Just like I don’t have to tell you what happened to my face because you were there when that happened.”
Mai rolls her eyes and folds her arms over her chest. “You’ve told her about that, we both know you have.”
“I’m allowed to talk to my friends.”
“When did you stop considering me a friend?” she bites out. When Zuko kneels to pick up Katara’s letter, Mai rises from her seat to loom over him. “Somewhere down the line, you stopped trusting me, Zuko.”
“I don’t think you really want to get into that,” Zuko says, attempting to keep his voice level in order to counter the volume of hers. The seal on the letter is imprinted with the inverted image of the pendant on Katara’s necklace, a pattern worn into the pad of his thumb after months in his possession so many years ago. When he breaks the seal, blue wax imbeds itself under his thumb nail and flakes to the floor, dusting the toes of his black boots.
“I went to prison for you, Zuko!”
It’s a letter from both Water Tribe siblings, written in Katara’s neat script and criss-crossed with additions in Sokka’s sloppy writing, extending an invitation to a team reunion in Ba Sing Se on the winter solstice. Uncle has offered up accommodations and the use of the Jasmine Dragon, just as he did after the war. Zuko makes a mental note to have the majordomo notified of the impending trip before he addresses Mai’s last statement.
She’s itching for a fight, that much is clear. Zuko’s secrecy surrounding the scar on his chest has long been the thorn in the side of their relationship. He knows it’s burning them to ashes slowly and painfully, but he can hardly bring himself to acknowledge the reason for the wound in the darkest corners of the night. Here in the light of day, in front of his south-facing windows, the bubble of fountains in the gardens below singing up to him, admitting it to Mai is out of the question.
“Do you know what I learned during the war?” he says instead, tucking the letter into his pocket. “Just because you make a sudden about-face doesn’t mean you deserve someone’s trust.”
“Did the waterbender teach you that?”
“Yes,” Zuko says. He crosses to the door, hands smoothing his damp hair into a topknot so that he can affix his crown as he walks to the budget meeting. “I’ll be heading to Ba Sing Se for the winter solstice to meet up with my friends. You should decide if you’re coming along.”
She’s beautiful in the fading winter light of the Ba Sing Se sunset, hair studded with golden beads and tumbling down her back. Zuko watches as she kicks off her shoes and hoists the skirts of her plum-colored dress to step up onto one of the many chairs that litter the back patio of Uncle’s house. She strikes a match and sets about lighting one of the dozens of navy and emerald paper lanterns that hang over the space.
“You know I could light all of these in about ten seconds, right?” he can’t help but say.
Katara smiles and he feels the scar on his torso twinge. “I think tonight deserves more of a personal touch,” she says softly. Then, her eyes find his and he’s struck by Azula’s lightning once more, just like he always is whenever they’re alone during these sporadic team reunions. “Not that it wouldn’t be personal if you did it. Tonight is just…special.”
“Why is that?” Zuko asks, reaching up to light one of the lanterns above his head.
“I’m not supposed to say.” Katara moves her makeshift step stool and sets about lighting another grouping of lanterns. He watches the sunset and the flames cast flickering shadows over her face. These three years post-war have been nothing but kind to her and he might be more enamored with her than he was at seventeen. Distracted by the thudding of his heart and the graceful planes of her face, Zuko narrowly avoids burning one of the paper lanterns to a crisp.
“Since when do you and I keep secrets from each other?” he says teasingly. Mother would admonish him for flirting with Katara when he’s involved with Mai. But Mother isn’t here at the moment and neither is Mai and the way he’s said it has earned him a laugh that encourages him to draw nearer to the waterbender.
They continue their project side by side, exchanging glances and soft laughs. And if he stands a little too close or brushes up against her one too many times, she doesn’t complain and there is nobody around to call him out on it. It turns into a sort of dance wherein they draw away from one another repeatedly, only to return again and again, a little closer each time. He can’t help but remember waking up next to her the morning after the Agni Kai, her body tucked close to his. Tonight, the high collar of her dress covers the slender line of her neck, but he can see the dip of it so clearly in his memory, can recall the feel of her skin and her pulse under his fingertips when he’d reached out to touch her.
“You won’t tell anyone?” she finally says, hopping off of the chair she’s been using to boost herself up and blowing out the match in her hand.
Zuko rolls his eyes. “Who would I possibly tell, Katara?”
“There are plenty of things I don’t tell Uncle, thank you,” he says.
“Oh, really?” Katara smiles slyly, stepping close. Zuko feels her fingers brush over his ribs to rest in the center of his chest. The emotions buried behind his scar begin to howl and he prays that she can’t feel the thud of his heart. “Sounds like maybe you’re keeping some secrets yourself, Zuko.”
“I don’t keep any secrets from you, Katara.” The lie comes out gruffly and the firebender can feel a frown creasing the corners of his lips.
Katara hums thoughtfully, tilting her head to the side. There’s a slight pinch between her eyebrows and something both inquisitive and searching in her eyes. While it’s a look Zuko has become familiar with over the past three years due to the sheer amount of times he’s found it aimed his way, he can’t quite grasp the meaning behind it. It’s almost as if she’s trying to piece together a puzzle that’s missing pieces or searching him for the answer to a question that she doesn’t know.
The golden beads that dot the gentle waves of her hair shimmer in the light of the lanterns. She’s so close to him it’s almost painful. Zuko’s fingers itch to seek purchase against the curves of her waist. Then, suddenly, she’s standing on her tiptoes, her body leaning fully into his, to whisper into his ear that Sokka is proposing to Suki right now and it’s all he can do to focus his attention on her words.
The waterbender pulls back, tongue darting out to wet her lips. Zuko forces himself not to track the movement with his eyes. “He asked me to throw a little party together,” she continues.
“That’s nice of him,” Zuko says. One of his traitor hands reaches out to move some stray strands of hair off her forehead. Her eyes won’t leave his.
“Sure looks lovely out here!” Toph’s voice interrupts loudly and the Fire Lord nearly jumps out of his skin. He and Katara turn to see the little earthbender standing in the doorway, fists on her hips. Zuko steps hastily away from Katara and busies himself with cleaning up the used matches and lighting one last lantern.
“What are you doing out here?” Katara asks, ignoring Toph’s needling.
“Wearing fancy clothes for reasons that you refuse to tell me,” Toph says, finding a seat and kicking her grimy feet up on a spare chair. “Oh! And chaperoning this little…whatever is going on out here.”
Katara splutters and it catches Zuko off guard. He pauses to stare at the back of her head as if it will provide answers to all of his questions that sit bundled behind the scar on his chest. “There’s nothing to chaperone!” she finally gets out.
“Uh huh.” Toph rolls her eyes. “Sure there isn’t.” Somehow her sightless gaze finds Zuko and he knows that she knows. The little smirk playing about her lips proves it. “Your mom just got here. And Mai.”
And if Toph’s arrival hadn’t killed whatever mood was building, that announcement certainly does it. Katara scoops her shoes off the ground with one hand, gathers the skirts of her dress in the other, and dashes down the stairs into the dark yard without so much as a glance back at Zuko.
Later that night, as Suki and Sokka’s surprise engagement party roars on under the green-blue glow of the lanterns, a riot of music blossoming from Iroh’s new phonograph, Mai sends Zuko on a quest to find her a specific snack from inside. And that’s when he unexpectedly walks in on Katara kissing the Avatar in Iroh’s kitchen. Her face is unreadable when their eyes meet and Aang looks absolutely lovestruck.
And Zuko’s heart crumbles to smoldering ashes in his chest.
He tells her the truth when they return from Ba Sing Se. Icy winter rain is pelting the south-facing windows of his bedroom. The flames in the fireplace and the torches lining the walls crackle and pop, casting the room into flickering shadows. He can’t look away from the watery glow of the city, can’t stop hoping against hope that Katara might be somewhere out there, looking north and thinking of him despite the fact that logic tells him she won’t be returning south for a long time. Now that he has her, Zuko knows Aang won’t be letting her go.
“Azula wasn’t aiming for me,” he says, fingers rubbing over the scar beneath his shirt like a nervous tic. Behind him, Mai is silent. “She’s always known me better than I know myself. She can ferret out people’s weaknesses like nothing else. I didn’t even realize until she looked at Katara. But she did. Maybe I was too defensive or maybe it was that I wouldn’t let her fight Azula with me. I don’t know.”
The lights of the city wink in and out, their halos blurring as drops of rain roll over the windowpanes. It’s truly a majestic view, something glorious that should be everything he’s ever wanted but somehow falls short. Instead of candles burning in the night, all he sees are the golden beads that had shimmered in the waves of Katara’s hair back in Ba Sing Se.
“Regardless, Azula figured it out. And the second she took aim, I just knew. And I knew I wouldn’t be fast enough to redirect the lightning completely, but living without Katara was an impossibility. So I took the hit.”
When Zuko turns to look at Mai, she’s standing between him and the door, her face as stoic as ever. A roll of thunder explodes in the heavens, but she stands there, unshaken, her eyes scrutinizing him.
“I don’t regret it,” he says. Mai’s mouth twitches. Whether she’s holding back tears or a a mirthless smile, Zuko can’t tell.
“No,” she says. “I don’t suppose you’d regret saving the woman you love.”
“It’s never going to go away, Mai.”
“Maybe you aren’t trying hard enough to get over it.”
Zuko shakes his head. “There’s no getting over it. Mai, I’m in love with her. It’s…irrevocable.”
“So the last three years…”
“I’m so sorry,” he says and he means it with every fiber of his soul. “You didn’t deserve any of this. And I should have been honest with you from the start.”
“You know the Avatar will never give her up, right?”
“Yes. I’m well aware.”
“Then where does that leave you? And where does that leave us?”
Zuko sighs, flopping into an empty chair near the windows. He rests his elbows on his knees and runs a hand over his face. “There will never be anyone else for me,” he says quietly. “Whatever is in my future, Mai, it’s going to be political on my part. Could you really live with that?”
She is silent for a few moments. He thinks he hears her sniffle, but the sound is buried under a particularly loud pop from the direction of the fireplace. Maybe he should reach out to her, offer her some modicum of comfort or reassurance, but all he can do is wrap himself in the tatters of his demolished heart. And when he finally dares to meet her eyes, he looks up to find that she’s already gone.