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a promise

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“Don’t frown like that,” he muttered, smoothing the lines from her face, a quiet look in his eyes. Zuko looked for her hand, and held it tightly, giving it a soft squeeze. “It’s going to be alright.”

It was as much a reassurance for him as for her, and she knew that. Still, she granted him a small smile, even if it didn’t last long. A sigh escaped her lips and pressed her forehead against his chest. The weight of her crown never as heavy as that day.

“You’re not sure. You can’t be,” she said, and her voice was trembling –a passionate vibration that can only serve as a testament of her devotion to him. And of the pain that worry carried with him. The idea of losing him too frightening to even consider it. Azula was volatile – she wasn’t a bender, but words cut deeper than swords. And her friend had known that. It was something she mastered from such a young age. Something Zuko had experienced first hand before. A pain Mai desperately wanted to spare him. It had taken so, so long for the both of them to finally be at peace with their past. It wasn’t fair that Azula was dragging him down that path again. It wasn’t fair that her entire lively, lovely bubble was about to pop.

“I have to go,” Zuko replied, his lips looking for her forehead. His kiss was that of a butterfly – fire spreading on her. Always calming. Always reassuring. Always his.

“I know. But I still don’t like it.”

“She tried to kill herself”, he softly explained, his brows furrowing. “And they kept that from me.” She couldn’t see him, but she felt the weight his words carried. The half-concealed pain that seemed to be drowning him. The guilt, the guilt – it was always guilt! and the worry that craved its wrinkles on his handsome face.

She needed another strategy if she wanted him to relax. So she did, smiling the faintest smile. “They did you wrong, I know. And we’re gonna have a talk about it.”

“Your idea of a talk, or mine?” he mused, laughing softly. Mai felt the vibrations on her body, and it made her feel at ease. Oh, what wouldn’t she give to have him laughing like that for all eternity!

“Both. Both sounds good.”

He smiled then and brought her closer to him, sighing in content. His scent wrapped around her, and it felt like a song caressing her skin, a whispered melody. Mai’s hand traveled down his spine, caressing with a ghostly touch, as soft as a rose. “It’s not your fault,” she whispered. He closed his eyes tight.

“I shouldn’t have left her.”

“You did what was expected from you,” she said, biting on her lower lip.  “Even more. They asked you to kill her. They wanted her down,” she felt Zuko wincing against her hair, and she moved back to look him in the eyes. “But you showed your compassion... and that ennobles you.”

“There was no such a thing as compassion as I didn’t visit her even once,” he growled, and there was that sharp edge on his voice that always reminded her of uglier, darker days. She hated them. Hated that she never seemed to forget them. Hated that they still left a shadow on his face. Hated that no matter how fast and how far they moved, they always seemed to get to them. Mai despised that there seemed to be nothing she could do but battle against them every day. Ever strong, ever harsh, ever violent. She wouldn’t let them take him from her. She wouldn’t let them hurt him anymore. It was a promise she made to herself, and Mai honored her words. She had learned from his bravery.

“She was dangerous,” she said, caressing his cheeks. The Fire Lady made an attempt at controlling the way her hands were trembling, and it seemed to work.

“Not without her bending.”

“Her bending isn’t her most powerful strength,” Mai added, looking at his scar. And she saw it again. Saw Azula’s smile as she told her and Ty Lee that Zuko was never going back. “You know that well,” her tone broke, bitter and hurt, and she stand on her tiptoes to kiss his scar.

“She’s my sister. And I…” he started but soon stopped once he felt her soft fingers over his lips. Her other hand finding its place over his heart, open palm and calmed eyes.

“You did what you had to do,” she said at last, not a trace of hesitance on her voice. “We can’t dwell on past mistakes. You were young, as was she. And she was… in a bad place. Do you think she would have listened to you?” Mai arched an eyebrow, feeling just as hurt as him from seeing his slow nod.  “You did her good at sending her away. Spared her of seeing your coronation, and the humiliation that would have given her. And you couldn’t help her,” she said, pointedly, as her hands caressed his cheeks. He closed his eyes, the guilt too heavy for him to accept it freely. “None of us could. She needed help, and you gave it to her by leaving her there.”

“I-I don’t know. I still feel like I should have done more. But I guess you’re right. We didn’t know. And we couldn’t do much for her anyway,” he muttered, and it didn’t escape her how his lower lip was trembling. She left a kiss there, soft, and fast, and almost ghostly, but it did serve to calm him even a little. That was a victory she could celebrate, if only for a second.

“This is her home,” he said, looking for her eyes. She held his look, her expression unreadable. But she nodded anyway, and he felt himself relaxing against her, his hands locking on the curve of her waist.

“Though it hasn’t been from a long time,” she said, soft and light, almost like an apology.

“I want it to be,” Zuko cleared his throat. He found his comfort playing with the tips of her hair, rolling locks on his fingers. Zuko carefully avoided her eyes as he went on, “I want to help her, as Uncle did to me.”

Mai smiled that sad smile of hers and left a kiss on his cheek. “I-I’m not sure if that’d be possible.”

“It’s worth a shot,” he shrugged, and she almost cried out. Dear Agni, please don’t let her hurt him. Dear Agni, please take care of him, she pleaded, and she breathed hard.

“You think?”

“Yes,” was his answer; short, clear, direct. He wasn’t playing. He was sure. He was sure, and if Zuko believed in something, he always did so passionately. It was what eventually made her love him. It was a quality she adored as much as she despised it at times, but they were in that together. No matter what, it would always be like that. And she’d fight by his side with equal parts honor and pride. So she kissed him. Hard, bruising – teeth clashing together as she tried to breathe her worry in, to believe not in Zuko, but in Azula.

“Then I believe you,” Mai finally said, when they broke apart. She offered him a small smile, and he caressed her cheek. His touch always delicate and fiery.  “And for your sake, I hope you aren’t wrong.”

“Me too,” he whispered against her hair, clasping them in yet another long embrace. Arms strong and warm against the cold silk of her robe.