i still act like an orphan i guess
my hard heart breaks to confess
that even while you hold me
as i cry on the floor
i still don’t know how to be yours
- Chris Renzema "How to Be Yours"
Afterward, in midst of sheets and slowing-down pants, Zuko lays with his head resting on her bare stomach. In the patch of no-man land between her ribcage and navel scarred tissue of his face warms against her soft, unmarred skin.
She has her hand in his hair, carding through it absentmindedly; pointed tips of her nails scratching his scalp lightly, the sensation so pleasant he would purr if he could. So close, he feels her every breath reverberate through his body, as if they were one person. He thinks they could stay like this forever. Mai flat on her back, stripped out of all the sharp objects and her hair loose. Him leaning on her with his eyes closed. The rise and fall of their chests synchronizing, rocking them back and forth.
Nothing between them. Nothing keeping them apart.
He moves his cheek across her lower belly; gently traces the sharp arch of her hipbone sticking out. He smiles as she gasps in surprise, still oversensitive. From his perspective, he can see the delicate goosebumps forming on her skin as she trembles. He doesn't even have to raise his head up to know how her face looks like; flushed cheeks, fluttering eyelids. Fringe still plastered to her forehead.
Mai has always been pretty, whether as a little girl or a sullen teenager. There is no way in Earth to hide her high cheekbones, the perfect slope of her nose or a long line of her neck. As a grown woman, grown into her aristocratic features, she is just painfully beautiful, like a marble statue of Fire Lady.
But marble doesn't blush. Marble doesn't whisper his name. Marble doesn't smile or giggle or arch its back when he caresses it. And Mai does.
Soon, they will both have to rise up from this warm nest of red silk, untangle from one another. Soon, the sweat will dry on their skin and leave them shivering from cold, not with those little aftershocks. Soon, the world will lose this glorious dimmed quality of their bed with curtains drawn and become painfully saturated again. And they will desensitize again, put on their masks to guard themselves against the harsh light.
There are so many things to do, so many, that he sometimes doesn’t even know where to start. So many duties to fulfill. Dignitaries, ministers, generals. All this political bullshit that he whole-heartedly despises and that turn her into little more than moving doll.
Mai freezes in the company of the court. Goes through her daily routine and does everything she’s expected to, and more, but her mother’s lessons were way to thorough to unlearn them. He can barely even recognize her sometimes when they are away from their bedroom, when they are not alone. She seems so distant, so focused and unflinching, not a trace of emotion on her beautiful, apathetic face.
He replaces his nose with his mouth, peppering the junction between her hip and tight with kisses that have her squirming underneath him, tugging on his hair.
“Zuko.” She whispers, gasps, whines, the rhythm of her breathing picking up again. “ Zuko, Zuko.”
He is not blind, or deaf or stupid. He knows what servants say about her, what stories are carried about her in the capital and through the entire nation. They call her a puppet, a mannequin. They deem her stillness unnerving. There is a string of whispering and gossips following her like a trail of a formal dress whenever she goes and she handles it like everything else unpleasant in her life – with infinite indifference. Back straight, chin up.
People wonder about his mistresses because surely, he is not sleeping with her?
And he wants to laugh at the ridiculousness of this whole idea because Mai is a livewire in his hands in bed. She is all at once and non-stop, as if she was making up for every time she held back.
Soon, she’ll slip from his arms and he will have so much important things to do that he will lack time to put a light in her dark eyes.
He wishes desperately, achingly, that he was gifted with speech. That he could possibly find words to express how he feels about her, so that she could always know it. He wishes for words as heated and passionate as his heart; words that she could carry in her heart around, that would warm her from inside out and make her shine. A shield to guard her against spite and poison on other people tongues. She leads this life solely because she chose it, chose him. Against all odds. He just wants to thank her for that, for sticking with him anyway and making everything a little bit easier to bear.
But he has never been a good speaker.
He only has his hands and his mouth and his love for her that seems so useless sometimes, if he can express it with his body alone. And there is simply not enough time at his disposal to tell her i love you like that every time he wants to.
She tastes so sweet on his tongue; sweeter than the finest pastry and candy carried into the dining room on silver trays. When all her damns break, underneath all shells and sharp edges, she is a soft whirlwind, a benevolent force of nature. An entire orchard of blooming cherry blossom.
Mai, eyes closed and lips parted, contains magnitudes he cannot even begin to grasp.
Soon, she will take all this beauty and lock it tightly inside her, and he will abandon her again.
But not yet. Not yet.