Title: Two Reflections Fandom: Avatar-The Last Airbender Author: devilinthedetails Genre: Hurt/Comfort; Angst; Drama. Characters: Mai; Zuko. Summary: A young Mai and Zuko reflect on their lives and families by a garden pond. Author's Note: Written for @WarmNyota_SweetAyesha's Springtime Meadow Event using the prompt "Two Reflections into One." Please be warned that this story references the verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse of children so exercise your own discretion when choosing to read. Two Reflections Mai stared into the serene surface of a pond in the palace gardens, wishing she could be so composed herself instead of hunched over like a weeping willow, blinking back the tears that threatened to seep out of her eyes and down her cheeks in salty rivulets. In the calm, still water she saw the reflection, the memory, of the encounter with her mother that had brought her fleeing to this garden pond gleaming cruelly as a silver dagger wielded by a well-trained hand. “You are a disgrace,” her mother had said in a cold, implacable voice, her expressionless face somehow making the reprimand all the harsher, as she styled Mai’s hair, their two reflections becoming one in the mirror where Mai’s mother was trying to turn her into something perfect. “You bring dishonor and shame to our family. Coming in third in your knife lessons when last semester you ranked first in your class. Such slips are unforgivable from the daughter of a family that once to maintain their status in the world and even rise higher if the Fire Lord permits. From a daughter of a family with ambition. From a daughter who should be concerned with family honor and reputation if not with her own.” Tears had started to trickle down Mai’s cheeks at her mother’s scolding. She had tried so hard to be perfect--to be the best--in her knife class and every other lesson, but it was impossible to be perfect--to be the best--all the time. And sometimes she felt so tired that she didn’t even want to try. That she just wanted to give up and not care about her family’s ambitions and honor any more. That she longed to surrender the never-ending quest for unattainable perfection and just seek her own happiness instead. If she could even find happiness after all the demands her parents put upon her… “Don’t cry,” her mother had snapped. “Just be better. More ambitious. Less of an embarrassment.” The last words lodged in Mai’s heart like a fatal dagger wound as her mother left the room without even finishing Mai’s hair. Leaving it imperfectly styled for once as another testament to Mai’s failure to be the daughter her parents wanted. Mai had come to the gardens to be alone. To try to find what peace and comfort in herself and in nature that she could, but she could now hear scuffling feet as someone joined her. She hoped it wasn’t Ty Lee. Ty Lee would try to cheer her, not realizing that Mai didn’t want to be cheered. She wanted to wallow in her misery for a bit. Even worse, Ty Lee would try to turn the situation into a joke, something to be laughed at, and Mai had no desire to hear her sorrows and shame transformed into a friend’s laughter fodder. Ty Lee would at least be better than Azula, who had never shown compassion for anyone in all the years Mai had known her. Whose sweetest words always concealed a nasty sting. Who seemed to take a perverse joy in watching even those she called friends suffer. It wasn’t Ty Lee or Azula. It was Zuko, and as he sat beside her, she thought that she should have known it was him. He had a knack for seeking her out when she needed comfort, and he was better than anyone else at comforting her. He took all her griefs seriously as if they were his own. He didn’t dismiss them or turn them into jokes. Sometimes he would even get enraged on her behalf, expressing emotions she tried so hard to ignore, to suppress, to pretend that she didn’t have burning in her chest when she should have been serene as a pond. “I brought bread.” Zuko held out rolls that must have been purloined from the kitchens. “I thought you might like to feed the turtle ducks”--he gestured at the flock of turtle ducks paddling through the pond, creating gentle ripples that somehow didn’t mar the calm of the pond-- “because my mother always says that feeding turtle doves can make any problem better.” “My mother never tells me things like that.” Mai snatched the rolls from Zuko’s hands and began to tear them apart, tossing the fragments into the pond to be devoured by the turtle ducks. “She only scolds me, telling me I’m not good enough because I’m not perfect. Telling me I bring shame and dishonor to our family.” “My father tells me the same things.” Zuko’s sun-gold eyes were on the turtle ducks swimming in circles around the pond. “Sometimes it makes me wish I was never born.” The starkness of that sentiment didn’t surprise Mai, though perhaps it should have. Azula had told her and Ty Lee with a sickening delight about how her father had once berated Zuko at their private dinner table by comparing the two of them--by saying that Azula was born lucky and Zuko was lucky to be born because he should’ve been killed for how weak his firebending potential was. It didn’t surprise Mai that Zuko might wish he was never born when his father said things like that to him. “Sometimes I hate them all.” Mai leaned closer to Zuko because there was nothing else she could think to do or say. “All of our parents.” She tore off the last chunk of bread, threw it to the turtle ducks, and clenched her fists. Sometimes she wondered if it was the cutting words of Fire Nation parents that made her people so much fiercer than every other nation in the world. That made them blaze with a desire for conquest to blot out their shame. Perhaps every Fire Nation general and soldier was no more than a broken child who just wanted to be whole again in the exacting eyes of their parents. It was a disturbing thought that rattled her to the bones. One she tried not to have very often and never dared to share because it sounded too much like the sedition or treason that could get people executed or locked up for life. “I don’t hate my mother.” Echoing Mai’s movement, Zuko leaned closer to her, so that in the water, their two reflections seemed to merge and become one. “She isn’t like other Fire Nation parents.” “No, she isn’t,” agreed Mai with a wistful sigh. “I wish my mother was like her.” “My mother likes you.” Zuko dipped a finger in the pond and trailed it through the water. “She says you’re very brave and strong.” Mai felt her cheeks burn, a condition that only worsened when Zuko went on, “I think she’s right. You are very brave and strong.” “I don’t care about being brave and strong. I don’t care what people think of me,” said Mai, forcing an indifferent shrug, even though she knew it wasn’t true. She did care about being brave and strong. Even more than that, she cared what people thought of her. Every respectable daughter of the Fire Nation did, and that was ultimately what Mai was despite any inadequacy her mother accused her of possessing. A respectable daughter of the Fire Nation. An identity that stifled as much as it sustained. “Well, I care what people think of me.” As always, Zuko was being more painfully honest than her. “I know they think I’m cowardly and weak right now, but I’ll show them that I can be brave and strong like you.” Mai wanted to tell him that he had already proved countless times over that he was brave and strong no matter what his father shouted on the contrary, but she didn’t have the courage to defy Ozai much less confess to Zuko how much she admired him. How deep the still waters of her feelings ran for him even if her mother said she was only a silly little girl with a crush.