Zuko loves Mai. Zuko loves the resilience in her eyes, the beautiful fire under her skin, the courage of her touch and the strength of her countenance.
Zuko loves Mai. Zuko—
Zuko cannot stop thinking of Katara.
She notices it quickly, but at first she does not say anything. This is Mai, how she always is; she never says anything. She does not smile. She reaches for his shirt and makes him pull it on again, and he does not protest, and that is the end of that conversation.
He wishes she would talk, but he does not know if that would assuage or increase his concern. What could she say? Nothing good for him, nothing he has the heart to hear, not after he burnt away a part of himself. So he closes her into his chest and ignores when she pulls away, when she refuses to press herself close to that mark.
"It's just a scar," he says. That is a lie. The scar which defines his outward features, his father's handprint; that is just a scar. He is not defined by that scar. That scar does not lie deeper than his skin. He had not been willing to fall at death's door for that scar. This scar holds his heart, ruptured and torn, healed. This scar defines his growth, his progress from the South Pole to the North, to Ba Sing Se and back to the Fire Nation, the Western Air Temple. He has thrived within this scar, he has built himself up again with this one.
Mai doesn't lie. Mai doesn't do anything. Mai doesn't feel anything.
He wonders if Mai would have fought Azula. He wonders if he would have jumped in front of lightning for her. He wonders if she would have gazed at him with pain etched across his features, if she would have reached for him, and if he would have lurched forward, fingers shaking—
"Careful," she tells him. "You're in a glass house, Zuko."
He doesn't know what she means. He doesn't know what she means.
"It's okay," she says. "You'll break it."
He does not see her for a long time. That is better for him. He knows it is. It is better for him, and Mai, and the Fire Nation, and the life they are building together.
He is eighteen the next time they meet, and he does not feel like a boy anymore. He remembers how she had looked at him, that day. He remembers how she had lifted him up, how she had dragged him back into the palace, how she had glowed, how she had looked like a spirit herself, how he thought the moon itself could not compare to her. He remembers the way her particular ocean had swum up into his bloodstream, how she is now what runs through his veins.
She had known, then, like he had. I owe you a life debt, she had said. You have already repaid it, he had replied. But that had not been the end of that conversation.
Perhaps she knows the truth which strums through his mind like a Tsungi horn. He thinks she could have known it then. It had been her eyes. She had looked terrified again, like he had crawled inside of her, all of the soft and special parts, and taken everything out:
He had taken understanding from her, acceptance, under the city of Ba Sing Se.
He had taken rage from her, anger, with the Southern Raiders.
He had taken devotion from her, attachment, in the Fire Nation Palace.
He has made a home inside of her heart, one that cannot be paralleled in the bed he never sleeps in, in the fire that burns uncontrollably here.
He is eighteen the next time they meet, and he does not feel like a boy anymore, and yet he is more uncertain than ever. It has been two years, and this is Katara. This is Katara, and Katara is with Aang, and he is the Avatar, and Katara loves Aang. And no, he cannot blame her for this. He, too, loves Aang: he loves the boy's moral righteousness, his capability, his nature. Katara loves Aang, he knows this. He loves Mai, he knows this. He is ready to lose everything, including the hope that has been keeping him upright.
The second their eyes meet, he knows. And she knows; and they are trapped in a whirlpool, elements combining and pushing them together, some strange, earthy magnetism, the wind's cooling touch, the fire inside of him, and her, just her.
And Mai, to his side. Mai smiles at them, Mai's fingers rub his wrists, and Mai is not mad at him. Mai is never mad. But she is warning him, silently, and he knows he needs to listen. Mai welcomes them, and Aang comes forward.
The Avatar is his height at age fourteen, and that is funny. He is a boy, still, he is lanky and strange, but he clutches Zuko with the strength of a thousand skies. Then he turns to Mai, and Zuko does not have time to look at Katara before she is in his arms.
Zuko loves Mai. Mai is cold next to him, Mai does not smile. Mai does not need anything from him, because she knows exactly what she has to do. She knows what she has to do underneath him, and she knows what to do in court, and Mai is everything he has ever needed. Mai is not everything he has ever wanted.
He is a firebender, but her skin against him burns. She has grown older, now. She is taller, and other parts of her have aged as well. Her features are sharp, but her eyes are still that strange color; they are the cosmos, and also the sea, and also the sky. They are the hottest flames he can conjure, and they are the height of his passion, and they are teasing him, but not in the way the stories tell.
Katara says hello, and that is a simple word, but her fingers press against his chest, and when they move away she tugs at him, pulls him by his heartstrings, and he knows that she knows, and he feels hopeful—
"Let's go in. I want to check on the guest rooms again."
Mai is perfect, perfect, cold and balanced, untouchable, his compliment, and she will be an ideal Fire Lady. He stares out as lightning passes through him once again, and Mai taps him on the shoulder as he coughs.
"You're falling, Zuko."
"Don't break anything."
He has to invite her to his wedding, because she belongs to the Avatar, and that is only proper. But it will hurt, he knows it. In the deepest caverns of his mind he is self-destructive, and he wonders if he could hurl himself into his matrimonial fire pits, because that would hurt less than watching her as he pledges his life to someone else.
This is the end of something that never began, because Zuko is honorable, and Katara is honorable, and he loves Mai, and she loves Aang. And love is all he can ask for, any way he gets it. He does not deserve the love the spirits get, and that is only understandable. Fire Lord Zuko is not a good person.
Still, he finds himself standing in front of the crowd, facing forward, his hand intertwined with one that is cold, and gray, and unfeeling. It hurts, because he loves Mai, and Mai loves him, and that should be enough. To love should be enough. This should all have been enough. He finds himself standing, and he twists out, and he finds himself searching. He doesn't know if this will level him, or if it will tear him down.
"She's not here," Mai whispers. "I made sure of it."
Mai is merciful, and that might be all he can ask for. "Thank you."
Her fingers tighten around his. "That's fine. Look happy."
She's still not very good at that, at looking happy.
"I'm yours," he tells her, because the possessive is true, and that is all he can give her. "I will always be yours."
For the first time, he hears her waver. He does not turn back around, but he hears a sniffle, and he should feel worse than he actually does. "It's cracking, Zuko."
"It's early, but it's fine," the small sobs clear up. "I will hold you up."
She doesn't sleep with him. They almost sleep together, and this is nothing new. She does not cry, because she is Mai, and she does not do that. She does not cry, but she forces him to take off his shirt, and she stares at the mark for a long, long time.
Then she reaches up and tries to kiss his scar, and he moves away. He knows exactly why. He has thought about that day, in the Crystal Catacombs, many times, and he has imagined a thumb running over his lips, and fingers over his scar, and this is his wedding night, but he cannot wipe that memory away.
She does not cry, but she steps back and looks at him so, so sadly.
"I'll put it back on," he says, because this room is lit with flowers, and they are blue, and the universe does not have courage today, and he does not know what else to say.
"No," she replies. "It's fine. It's a part of you."
He wishes they could tell the truth. He thinks about a fiery waterbender who always told him what she thought, who forgave him once and then threatened to kill him and forgave him again. He thinks about the warmth of her touch, the curves of her body against him, the way she bites her lip, and he looks at his wife.
"You deserve better. I'm broken."
Mai walks around the room and blows out every open candle until they are both wrapped in darkness, and she does not touch him, and her back is against him. "Have a foundation, at least," she mutters.
He does. Fire Lord Zuko has his honor, if nothing else, and his heart feels like it is a tapestry, being woven through with needles of electricity, and he has just subjected himself to an inescapable fate.
There is a hole in his soul, and it is going to lie unfilled. He knows this, because this is fate's curse, and his punishment. But Izumi fills it as much as she can, so unintentionally, and he feels complete, almost, gradually.
Today he is filing papers, but he is outside, and Mai is not here, and he feels greatly relieved at that. He should not, because he loves Mai, he really does. She is the mother of his child, even if they do not sleep together at night unless Izumi is also there.
Mai has always reminded him not in front of her, and he has never, ever, argued, because he will never betray either of them. His body will not dance to those beats, because that is not who he is. But he is human, and his mind strays, and he feels eternally guilty for closing his eyes and seeing stars.
Izumi is by the turtleduck pond, and she is talking to one of the ducks, babbling in her incoherent child-language. It is nonsense, but it is innocence, and he vicariously revels in it. He turns away for a single moment to sign a last note, so that he can truly be there for her, and when he looks back she is in the pond.
It is not very deep, and that is how he will justify it later to Mai. It is not a deep pond, there is no way she could have drowned. And that is the proper justification for this. How could he explain the rest?
He is not going to tell Mai that he froze when he saw his daughter splashing, that he thought her eyes glinted blue in the skylight. He cannot even feel ashamed.
"Daddy! Look! Water!"
She dances, and twists, and turns, and it looks alive around her, and he cannot handle this, so he reaches and grabs her after several moments of the spectacle. She is soaked wet, and every drop of water which falls onto his skin burns like ice. "We can't do that, Izumi."
She ignores him, because she can, and holds up several droplets to the light, and they fall on her face until she is painted all the colors he sees in her. "It looks like glass, Daddy!"
He reaches down to kiss her forehead, and she drops her hand, and the beads of water bounce on the ground, and he steps on them, because he cannot do that right now.
"Not to Daddy, Izumi."
They are never alone. He thinks Aang might know, because he is a man now, and he has two children of his own, and he looks at Mai strangely, but it is not the same. The both of them share a silent bond, and that is the mangled story on his chest. Izumi is older now, and she and Kya play together.
He wonders if Katara has ever seen Bumi's eyes turn gold, or seen red shining in Kya's bending. He will never get a chance to ask her, and that saddens him, but that has been his life to this point.
He takes the Avatar and the man's beautiful wife to the top of the palace, and they see the reparations he has spent years building from a start much more stable than his. He leaves them to stare at the city below them, at the Caldera glowing, and he sees Aang reach for Katara's hand, and he sees her move away from him. She does not turn to him, but she rests her hand on the left side of her face.
They have families now. They are adults, and they are twice the age they once were, and his heart should not beat like this, seeing her in Fire Nation clothing. They have children, and stories, and their pages in the history books are mostly filled. There is no room for him in her, and no room for her in him, because he is good at staying strong, and he has built himself up gloriously on hardrock.
Mai meets him downstairs, at a window, and they can see the three children playing below. Izumi's small hair buns bounce as she runs through the halls, and he can almost remember Mai and Ty Lee and Azula doing the same thing. She is a pretty child, and she is all his. And he says so, says they are beautiful kids, and the word is not exactly fitting, but it is what he means, because he is talking about the universe.
"You would have been a good father," she tells him as he stares wistfully at them, and he does not even try to pretend that he does not know what she means. He is a good father. He could fail at rebuilding the world, but he is a good father. But that is not what she means.
"I'm sorry." It seems like that is all he really has to tell her. He took a nobleman's daughter who ached for freedom and threw her in a prison cell, and he does not even have his heart to give her. Another woman has that, and she is standing with her husband outside, and she has not borne any of his children, and she never will.
"Zuko," Mai looks up at him through her lashes. "I'm going to let you go now."
It feels like the world is crashing down around him, like everything has fallen apart, but it also feels right.
Mai does not last four more years. He curses her, because he remembers losing his mother and he cannot believe his daughter is suffering the same fate. Izumi crawls between them, and he regales his wife and daughter with tales about the Blue Spirit, and Mai laughs before coughing, and Izumi looks completely, utterly terrified. He has been through war, and he knows the facade she is wearing, and he is trapped in a cycle of guilt and just guilt, because he loves her to the ends of the planet.
She tells him that Mother has to be okay, because she told the turtle ducks and they nodded at her. He hugs her to his chest and whispers into her ear, and he tells her every story he can think of. He refuses to tell stories about the war, but he talks about the Painted Lady, and of Avatar Lua, and of peace.
They have one last conversation, and he hates that it is like this, but Mai’s life has been about him, and he is not able to absolve her.
"I didn't want this for you."
Her eyes are shining, and Mai is crying. "I had you. For however long, you were mine."
His fingers rub over hers, and she places a hand over Izumi's exhausted, tired head, and he wishes her last words were of her. "You live on faults, Zuko. I love you."
That is all. Zuko loves Mai. He loved Mai to the ends of the earth, and now she is gone, and he wants to disappear.
They grow old, and Aang dies, and Izumi and Bumi and Kya and Tenzin live, and they have children of their own, and he exists through all of those years in some sort of haze. It is unfair that the most important moment of his life happened when he was sixteen, when he was too young to place his soul on the line, to stop his heart from beating.
They are too late, when the time comes, but they both know. They always know. They meet one last time, and that is all, and he knows, when he looks into her resilient eyes, when he feels the fire under her skin, when he learns the courage of her touch and the strength of her countenance, that they will be lucky in another life.
Zuko loves Katara.