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Oh look, I wrote another one!

Title: Almost
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Rating: PG-13
Characters/Pairings: Zuko, Mai, Katara, OC; Maiko, Zutara, Zuko/OC
Warnings: Angst, death, OC shipping
Summary: Three women, three stories, and all the things that could have been.




I.

As a child, Zuko doesn’t understand Mai. He knows that she likes him, but he’s not really sure why, or even what that means. Not that he gives it much thought, because Mai is Azula’s friend, and furthermore she is a girl, and he has better things to concern himself with. Like climbing trees and toy soldiers and practicing his firebending and other things that Mai finds boring.

Still, though most of their interaction happens only at his mother’s urging, Mai is almost always there. He doesn’t understand her, but he knows her. She is familiar, and, he thinks as they start to grow older, kind of pretty.

He is fourteen when he kisses her for the first time. It’s just an awkward peck on the lips, the fumbling first kiss of an adolescent. She turns bright pink and seems to have trouble looking him in the eye, but when he starts to stammer out an apology she surprises him by kissing him back.

In the weeks that follow there are more kisses, and hands held under the table, and flowers left for her to find. They think they’re being quite secretive, but of course their childish courtship is obvious to anyone who cares to look. Finally, Azula tells them that they have to stop being so disgustingly sappy in front of her. Ty Lee protests that she thinks it’s so romantic that Mai and Zuko are dating.

Embarrassed at being found out, neither one of them denies it.


At least, this is what could have happened.

In reality, it’s just a few short days after that first kiss when Zuko attends his first war council, which of course goes disastrously. Humiliated, wounded, and exiled, he is given a week to recuperate before he must leave the only home he has ever known, perhaps permanently.

His uncle is the only one to see him during that time. He doesn’t know if Mai tries and is turned away by the guards now stationed outside his door, or if Azula won’t let her come, or if she simply doesn’t want to see him now that he’s been so thoroughly disgraced.

He wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.

----

When he returns to the Fire Nation in triumph, they pick up where they left off, more or less. They’re older now, and the kisses are deeper, less chaste. Mai is less shy and more cynical. But there’s still a familiarity to their relationship, something comfortable and expected. Mai is almost like home.

Only home doesn’t quite feel like home. Zuko has been away for nearly three years, and he’s startled to discover that little has changed. The palace is the same. Azula still lies. His father is as distant in his praise as he was in his scorn. It seems like Zuko’s the only one who’s really changed, though he’s not sure how or why.

When he finally figures it out, he feels painfully slow for not having realized it sooner. But he must act quickly now. The eclipse will be here soon. He will confront his father and let him know that he no longer has any hold over him, and then he will leave to fulfill his true destiny.

He writes Mai a note, but he doesn’t try to explain his actions. He doesn’t have time, and he doesn’t know how to tell her so that she’ll understand, anyway.

After the war is over, it seems that all is forgiven between them. Mai still doesn’t quite understand the path that led him to his destiny – and to be fair, he still hasn’t quite explained it – but she understands a changing political landscape, recognizes that his choices will be good for the Fire Nation in the long term, and supports him in his new role as Fire Lord.

He needs all the support he can get. Iroh will give him advice, but never make his decisions for him. Aang is full of ideas and suggestions for the restoration of peace after the war, but he is younger even than Zuko and an idealist. There are the generals, the Fire Sages, and the nobles who serve as his advisors, but they each have their own agendas, often competing, and it is up to him to sort them out and see that no one party’s interest is allowed to come before the good of his people.

Mai has spent more time in the court than him, and she knows what politics is like. She may hate it, but she knows what it’s like. She knows how to navigate the myriad of competing interests. She can analyze and calculate and tell him what the best thing to do is, and he is grateful for this.

But sometimes, when she offers him counsel – on his father’s fate, on what to do about the colonies, on how to handle the post-war food shortages – he wonders if she really understands these situations, or if it’s all abstract to her. She is not, after all, the one who has to make the difficult decisions. She doesn’t have to live with the weight of them. It is Zuko who wears the crown, and ultimately he rules alone.

They don’t really talk about it. They don’t really talk about anything. They discuss, they plan, they exchange banter and pleasantries, but real communication has always been hard for them. Such conversations always seem to lead to arguments or hurt feelings. Sometimes they end with one of them walking out on the relationship altogether, only to grudgingly make up later. Those times are bad.

But the worst is when those conversations don’t take place at all, when they speak what’s on their minds but not in their hearts. There are no harsh words, no raised voices, but the things unsaid weigh heavily on them.

It is a problem, to be sure, but one they can overcome. With patience and persistence, they can learn to trust one another, to share more of themselves. It’s not as difficult as it could be, even. They’ve known each other for so long, and there are few secrets between them.

Mai remembers the time that Zuko only thinks of as “before,” when Azulon was on the throne and Ozai’s ambitions were not even half-formed. With his mother gone, she is his last link to this time. Together, with the proper commitment, maybe they can find some of that happiness again.


Perhaps this is what should have happened, but it did not.

There is no growing closer, no opening up to each other. Instead, they grow apart. Mai was raised for a life of court politics, but it’s never been what she wanted. Zuko isn’t sure what he really wants. Their youthful infatuation fades, the attraction between them cools. Eventually, she leaves for good, and any idea of recreating a lost paradise fades like the illusion it always was.

----

II.

As a young man, Zuko makes a lot of mistakes. He acts rashly, falls short, and trusts the wrong people. He always tries to make the right choices, but he is bad at being good.

One of his biggest mistakes is in Ba Sing Se. He’s traveled the Earth Kingdom, seen what the war is doing to the world, and knows it has to stop. He’s had a life away from fighting, away from his father, and he’s been, if not happy, then at least content. He’s had a chance to be free of his scar practically handed to him on a silver platter, and he’s thrown it all away.

It would be a lie to say that’s all Ba Sing Se means to him, though.

Before the offer of healing and the gentle hand on his face come the harsh words, the accusations and the tears. Then there is I’m sorry, and That’s something we have in common, the olive branch that comes not from the compassionate peacemaker but from the reserved warrior. He barely knows this girl, but their lives have been shaped by the same forces. Katara does not get the chance to heal him physically, but a connection is built between them.

The connection is poisoned by his subsequent choices, but it does not break. When he seeks to repent after the eclipse, it is this connection that makes her the most reluctant to forgive him. It is this connection that makes her forgiveness the one he desires the most. He has done wrong by all the members of the Avatar’s ragtag band, but Katara is the only one he has hurt personally.

He tries being contrite, he tries being friendly. He tries giving her space. He trains Aang, helps rescue her father, and earns the trust of everyone else in the group. But he is seeking more than trust from her. He has already earned her trust, and broken it, as she is quick to point out. So he gives her the man who killed her mother, though he is uncertain revenge will really help her. He is growing desperate, and he will try anything to make amends.

She impresses him on that journey, both with her bending and ultimately with her restraint. Her pronouncement of forgiveness lifts a great weight from his chest, and her embrace does more for him than the water of the Spirit Oasis ever could.

When Azula tries to kill Katara on the day of the comet, Zuko knows he cannot let this happen. Diving in front of a bolt of lightning, absorbing it without being grounded, without a clear head or a steady heart – this is probably one of the rashest and most foolish things he’s ever done. But he’s not thinking of what’s right or what’s smart when he does it. There is only Katara and the blue-white electricity arcing towards her and the certainty that she will die if he does not put himself between them.

Laying down his life for her is the most natural thing in the world.

The rest of the fight passes for him in a haze of pain. Zuko is aware of reaching out towards the figure in blue at one point, heart racing unevenly, but everything after that is darkness.

The next sensation he is aware of is a tingling coolness on his stomach, where the lightning had struck him. Consciousness returns and he opens his eyes to see Katara, hands sheathed in glowing blue water, worry etched across her face. What began in Ba Sing Se has been completed in ways neither of them could have imagined. Katara has healed him.

He whispers his thanks into the dry air. She helps him to his feet, hand resting on his arm to steady him. Still dizzy and uncertain, he pulls her closer as the courtyard smokes and smolders around them. Their lips meet, and he can taste the salt of her tears. They taste of hope and of relief, of promises broken and promises fulfilled. They taste of life.

But this never happens.

He wants to kiss her, in that moment. He wants to give her everything, to lay the world at her feet. But he cannot, and it would all be so inadequate anyway, so he does nothing, and lets the moment pass. He gets back together with Mai, and she begins dating Aang, and he manages to convince himself that it would have spoiled what they have. He does not want their relationship marred by any more mistakes.

----

The friendship they have forged through so much adversity is too strong to ever fade, and the magnitude of what he was willing to do for her speaks for itself. Their shared experiences afford them the certainty that they will always be able to rely on each other. Even when duty calls them to go their separate ways after the war, they exchange heartfelt letters. The occasions when they do get to see each other – peace summits and diplomatic meetings and even the odd friendly visit – are always happy ones, and no matter how much time has passed, they always confide in each other with ease.

Sometimes they argue – mostly it seems to be about her relationship with Aang, which Zuko can’t quite fathom. But they always reconcile, and it never does any lasting damage to their friendship. They never let their differences fester, either, for neither one is ever reserved about speaking their mind to the other.

The contrast to his failed relationship with Mai is not lost on him. Nor, it seems, is it lost on some members of the nobility. There are whispers – as Fire Lord he can’t afford not to pay attention to such things – there are whispers whenever Lady Katara is visiting the court, that perhaps the Fire Lord spends just a little more time with her than is proper, that he smiles just a little more broadly than is appropriate, that his eye lingers just a little bit longer than it should.

It’s the scandal of a lifetime, spoken of only in hushed whispers behind closed doors. The Fire Lord and the waterbending master. There is no proof, of course. Their relationship could never be public. But not everyone is as blind as the Avatar, and the people love to tell stories.

And oh what a story this is! Bitter enemies in an inherited war who conquered ancient prejudices and became friends, their feelings gradually blossoming into something more, only for them to be torn apart by duty, their love cursed to remain forever clandestine. A king and a foreign commoner meeting in secret, a passion that cannot be denied. It has all the elements of a perfect romance.


Of course, this never happens either.

Life does not follow the conventions of stories. They remain good friends, but that is all. If people talk, it is only gossip. Regardless of what could have been, Zuko refuses to pine after Katara, let alone make advances towards her. She is the Avatar’s wife, and he respects them both far too much for that.

----

III.

As an adult, Zuko is still unmarried, which begins to concern his advisors. At first it had been tolerated – the Fire Lord was young, the crown unsteady upon his head. Waiting was best. But as peace returns and the Fire Nation stabilizes, his people want to see this stability secured for future generations. Zuko needs an heir.

His advisors remind him that this is part of his duty. His uncle tells him it’s not good for him to be alone. The Earth King offers his cousin, as a sign of goodwill between their two nations. Zuko accepts.

Tian is a year older than him. She is a petite woman with green eyes, a round face, and a quiet, gentle laugh. Their first meeting is less awkward than it could have been. He is doing this for his country, his people, and she for hers. There is an understanding between them.

A week before their wedding, Zuko finds her in the library, pouring over scrolls of Fire Nation history. He tells her she doesn’t have to do that, but she insists that it’s only proper. She’s been drilled in the etiquette and customs of his people, but knows little of their culture, arts, or history. She could be a perfect figurehead of a Fire Lady, but she wants to be so much more than that.

When she had arrived in the Fire Nation, Tian had been wearing a light green dress in the latest fashion of the Upper Ring. At their wedding, she dons traditional Fire Nation garb for the first time, and wears exclusively Fire Nation styles thereafter. She embraces her new country whole-heartedly, the public face of a new era of peace and cooperation with the Earth Kingdom. Zuko’s people, who had been wary of their Fire Lord’s foreign bride at first, come to love her.

Zuko does not love her, not the way a husband should. He appreciates her support in his work and admires her dedication to the welfare of her adopted people. He enjoys her company and is grateful to have her as a friend and partner. There is always a bit of awkwardness between them, though, the undeniable knowledge that neither of them would have chosen this match of their own accord. Their marriage is consummated, but they keep separate bedrooms.

Zuko does manage to confide in her – about his insecurities as a ruler, his lack of closure for his mother’s fate, his fears of fatherhood and repeating the mistakes of previous generations. Tian doesn’t quite understand. But she listens.

A little over a year after their wedding, Tian is pregnant.

The news is welcome to his people, and to most of the nobility as well. Tian is happy and excited to be a mother. Zuko is mildly terrified, but also somewhat in awe of his wife. To think that there is a child, his child, growing within her, an entirely new life nestled under the gentle swell of her belly. He has been joined to her in matrimony, connected with her through friendship, and shared with her the marriage bed, but this binds them to each other in a whole new way.

The new prince is born at midsummer – not the most fortuitous birthday, but an auspicious beginning nonetheless. There is feasting and celebration for days throughout the Fire Nation, and the Earth King sends with his congratulations an impressive marble pai sho set and a rather large stuffed bear. As the boy grows, he is doted on by both his parents. His eyes are gold like his father’s, but his hair is a shade lighter and his features not quite so angular.

When he plays with his son or instructs him in firebending or even admonishes him to sit up straight at the dinner table, Zuko will often catch a look on his face that is achingly familiar. It is a look of pure admiration, of a young boy burning for approval from his father.

Zuko makes sure his son knows that he has it.


This is what would have happened, if fate were kinder.

Their son never opens his eyes. Tian is devastated. Zuko holds her as she cries – not gentle weeping or mournful wailing, but desperate, gut-wrenching sobs that cause her whole body to tremble. The child had meant everything to her, and now he is gone.

Zuko sheds tears of his own, and they mingle with hers as they trail down her face. The child is dead, all the joy and hope for the future is gone, but the feeling of being bound together has only grown stronger.

----

Tian wears white for a year after the loss of their son. At first she is plagued by nightmares, and seeks out her husband for comfort. When she begins sleeping beside him every night, the dreams leave her for the most part. Zuko finds he rather likes waking with her in his arms each morning. Nothing can quite remove the pain that they share, but there is a sort of peace that eventually comes in its wake. It feels like healing.

When Tian becomes pregnant again, the nightmares return. There is joy and hope again, of course, but this time there is also fear. The months pass slowly and they are both anxious to see this child, to hold him, to hear his cries. Tian insists it will be a boy – mother’s intuition, she calls it. Zuko knows there is really no way to know these things, and privately wonders if she isn’t trying in some way to replace the son they lost.

But this is an uncharitable thought, and he does not share it.

The second birth is even more difficult than the first. The pains last nearly a full day before the child makes an appearance. There is a terrible silence and bated breath for only a moment before the infant’s cries echo throughout the room. It’s a girl – a daughter – and she is perfect and healthy and alive

But something is wrong. Tian cries out in pain again. The physicians pass the child along to the waiting nurse and return their attention to the mother. They assure the Fire Lord that this is no cause for alarm, that these things happen, but Tian is so pale and so exhausted and there is so much blood.

It’s a close call, but the palace physicians are some of the best in the world. The Fire Lady is confined to bed rest for a month, but she recovers.

They name their daughter Kazue. Zuko swears she is the image of her mother, but Tian insists there is something of him in her eyes. She had stolen her father’s heart the moment he first held her, and Zuko is certain that he has never cared for anyone the way he does for his little girl.

Until one afternoon when Tian coaxes him out of his office for a late picnic lunch, which turns into a family naptime in the gardens. He awakes as the sun is setting, Kazue curled up on his chest and Tian tucked under his arm, and it suddenly dawns on him that this is more than a marriage of convenience.


This almost happened, but it didn’t.

The physicians do all they can, but fate has other plans. Tian holds on long enough to lay eyes on her daughter, nestled in her husband’s arms, to be sure that she is safe. Then she breathes her last.

Zuko’s grief is quiet but deep, and it has a bitter hue, for he is mourning something he never really had.

----

Almost is painful. It’s a faded scar on his chest that still twinges from time to time and strained silences between childhood friends that speak far louder than words. It’s his stillborn son and his wife’s ashes and his newborn daughter’s green eyes flecked with gold.

Zuko never remarries. He doesn’t think he can bear to almost love another woman.




In case it's not obvious (it isn't), all my A:tLA fan fiction is set in the same quasi-AU.