The day after the funeral, Mai sat in her room, staring at a cooling cup of tea Iroh had left for her earlier that morning. She wasn't thirsty or hungry, and the sounds of the mourning citizens were beginning to hurt her ears. Even though she'd bolted the windows hours ago, she could still hear them, and she wished they would just shut up already. It wasn't like their tears could bring Zuko back. In fact, maybe that was why she hadn't cried yet, nor would she.
She lightly ran her finger around the circular rim of the glass, as her eyes closed and an involuntary sigh escaped her lips. It had been a nice funeral, only the best for the Fire Lord. Even the Avatar had been in attendance, his old ragtag group of friends close behind. He'd been one of the eulogizers and spoke of what an invaluable friend Zuko had become over the years and how there never would have been an end to the war without him. He didn't cry during his speech, but Mai was sure she saw him afterwards with his hands in his face and his shoulders shaking.
Iroh, still alive to see his beloved nephew outlive him, had taken over as interim Fire Lord until he and the council could figure out their next move. Zuko's early death had been a complete shock. When he suddenly collapsed during a dinner with officials from the Earth Kingdom, everyone immediately suspected foul play. However, when he woke up an hour later in the palace hospital, claiming to be perfectly fine besides a splitting head ache, no one was quite sure what to make of it. It happened again only a month later, this time during a sparring match. Now nobody could deny that the Fire Lord was ill, and nothing was causing it except his own body.
Cancer was not a new thing in the medical world by any means, however, the thought that even the mighty Fire Lord could succumb to it struck the Fire Nation more than anything else. When Zuko finally withered away and died months after the initial diagnosis was made, everyone was in a state of shock, even though they all knew it was coming.
Zuko had been strong to the very end, refusing to give up his duties even at the risk of worsening his health. It made her angry, but Mai couldn't fault him for it. That strength was one of the reasons she loved him so much. The nights they spent together, even after he became sick, had been without a doubt the best of her short and incredibly boring life. Those nights she could actually pretend that he was hers and hers alone. That in the morning, he wouldn't smile, kiss her goodbye and then go sleep in her bed. For those brief moments, she could pretend to be the only one in his heart just as he was the only one in hers.
"Milady?" a quiet, cracking voice rang out.
Mai glanced at the elderly maid but didn't lift her head. She wasn't in the mood for company right now.
"Forgive me Milady, but you have a visitor."
And of course…
"See her in," the annoyed Mai said with a sigh.
She knew who it was before even seeing her face, it simply couldn't be anyone else. So when the dark skinned, blue eyed young woman who'd stolen Zuko from her walked in with her head held high and her expression even, Mai didn't feel the need to stand and greet her.
"Katara," she spoke the name without a hint of emotion, though her mind was speaking it with the utmost loathing and rage. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
Katara raised an eyebrow. "You're as cheerful as ever."
"That doesn't answer my question," Mai answered stiffly.
Katara ignored this and walked forward, stopping directly beside the vacant seat at Mai's table.
"May I?" she asked.
Mai snorted. "You will no matter what I say."
Katara clearly didn't appreciate the other woman's tone, but said nothing as she sat herself down and looked the Fire Nation woman directly in the eye.
"Mai," she began. "First of all I'm sorry for barging in like this after all that's happened."
"Certainly didn't stop you," Mai drawled, taking a sip of her tea and grimacing at the bitter and cool taste.
The water tribeswoman scowled at her, but continued. "I felt that it was a good idea for us to meet today."
"And why is that?"
Katara glared. "I don't appreciate your attitude, Mai."
"It's not like I'm trying to be rude," Mai lied with an edge of anger in her voice. "I honestly want to know just what would possess you to come here when you should know you aren't welcome."
"I know you're pregnant."
Mai's insides froze. She stared at the Water Tribe girl in shock for what felt like hours. Katara, for her part, didn't move an inch or change her quiet expression. She waited patiently for Mai to overcome her shock, and was rewarded seconds later when Mai slammed her fists against the small table in a rare show of emotion.
"How dare you," Mai seethed. "What makes you think you have any rights to that knowledge you… you-"
"What?" the now angered Katara curtly asked. "Slut? Whore? Abomination? Believe me, nothing you could say would shock me, I've heard it all before."
"I bet," Mai answered in monotone, easily sliding back into her emotionless disposition, even though inside, the fires still raged. "You never did have it easy with Zuko, did you?"
"I married Zuko because I had to, Mai," the former Fire Lady said, her hands curling into fists. "My people needed reassurance that the Fire Nation wouldn't attack again, the Fire Lord having a Water Tribe woman for a wife was the best way to achieve that."
"Oh really," Mai said sarcastically. "And you weren't even a little happy with the arrangement."
"I was in love with Aang," Katara wistfully answered. "I was going to marry him..."
As Katara trailed off, Mai thought back to the last time she'd seen the Avatar. He'd been leaving after the funeral with his pregnant wife, that blind earthbender girl, along with their two year old son. In spite of the obvious sadness at losing a dear friend, the Avatar seemed perfectly happy with his life and his family. He'd moved on just fine after losing Katara to her responsibilities.
"When I married Zuko, I made it clear that I didn't love him," Katara continued, breaking Mai from her thoughts. "I told him 'I married you for my people, I'll never love you as more than a friend.'"
"Well, that's a lie if I ever heard one."
The waterbender shook her head. "It wasn't a lie… "
'Not at first.'
Those were the words Mai knew should have followed Katara's statement. She'd seen the looks Katara gave Zuko even before he became ill. They weren't the looks one gave to a friend, they were much to... heated, let's say. It was all the evidence Mai needed to know that somewhere down the line, Katara's feelings for Zuko changed, even when his never did. The thought made Mai smirk and laugh bitterly.
"So what are you trying to say?" she asked mockingly.
Katara scowled, but her anger wasn't really targeted at Mai, "You just don't know, Mai. You think you do, but you don't."
Mai's smile faltered a bit.
"Zuko didn't love me. Not when we got married and not when he was dying. He always loved you and you alone. That's why he went to your bed all those nights. That's why the few times we actually had sex, he called your name instead of mine. That's why you're going to have his child, and I'm not."
Mai blinked, unsure of what to think as tears welled up in the waterbender's eyes.
"You have no idea how much that hurts. You may think I stole him from you, but I was never even in the picture. He was always yours."
And for once, Mai was genuinely, honest-to-God speechless. Her hands absently went for her stomach, where the child she and Zuko created rested in wait for it's inevitable birth. The last night she and Zuko spent together was two months ago, before he took a final turn for the worse. That night was the wildest, most passionate she'd ever had, and as she held him in her arms and let him breath in the scent of hair, she'd just known. Known that this was it, that she'd never have him again after this. She held him tighter than ever before, like a child with a beloved stuffed animal. She didn't want to let go, and she didn't want to cry the next morning when she woke up and he was gone.
Her fists were clenched tight around the fabric of her pants. She closed her eyes tight. She would not cry, not in front of Katara, not alone, not ever. The Fire Lady cleared her throat, bringing a welcome end to the horrible silence.
"Anyway," she said with a slightly shaking voice. "I only came to warn you that the Council knows about your pregnancy."
Mai's eyes widened. "How did they find out?"
Katara smiled sadly and shrugged. "I don't know, perhaps you should switch healers."
The Fire Nation woman grit her teeth in anger. Someone was going to get a knife to the throat very shortly.
"They will come here, you know," Katara continued. "An illegitimate heir is better than nothing, after all."
Mai nodded, she probably would've seen that coming whether Katara told her or not. "And what about you?"
"I'm going to stay," she answered firmly with no hesitation. "Iroh's let the Council know that they're not to try and force me out of the Palace. I doubt they would've anyway. It wouldn't look good if they threw the Fire Lord's widow on the streets days after his death. Besides, I've worked hard to become accepted by the people, and I believe that I still have a purpose here."
Mai rolled her eyes, "Oh, I bet you do."
"I still don't appreciate the attitude," Katara deadpanned.
The Fire Lady then stood back up.
"Sorry to cut this short," she said. "But I have other affairs at the palace. I just thought it would be best that you be prepared for when you're forced before the Council."
The black haired girl nodded, but gave no other reaction as Katara quietly took her leave. Still, just before she disappeared out the door, Mai thought for a split second that the waterbender had tears in her eyes, and somehow, that only made Mai herself feel worse.
'He was always yours.'
Those words ran through Mai's head over and over again. He'd told her every time they met that he loved her, but a part of her always refused to believe it. If he loved her, he should've said no to the Council's demands and married her, not Katara. She should've been his wife all along. She should've been the one to hold his hand when he died.
Mai ran a hand up and down her stomach, wondering if the child would look more like her or like Zuko. An image of a golden eyed child with a flaming hand and a bright, dorky smile flashed before her mind's eye.
Right at that moment, the roof above her had to have started leaking. It was the only explanation she would accept as water flowed down her cheeks.
And behind her, a dying candle flickered it's last, leaving the room in darkness.