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Shades Of Gray

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Zuko had been born with a thick, inky on the back of his neck.  His mother smiled, saying it was a sign of a strong connection between him and his soulmate.  She rubbed her own soulmark ruefully.  She had kept it hidden ever since her marriage.

His father scoffed, saying it was sentimental nonsense.  "Old-fashioned and ridiculous," he said, voice a threatening rumble that made Ursa flinch with every word from his lips, the back of his neck unmarked.  

His uncle smiled at the mark, always a romantic.  "A strong connection is an excellent sign." But a realist as well.  "Although you never know what kind of connection it will be." The red soulmark on his neck seemed to glow in agreement with his words.

Azula teased him for the mark endlessly as they grew up, and Zuko tried to retaliate, although he was rarely successful.  Once, he thought he'd met his soulmate, but their romance ended nearly as suddenly as it began, the name filling out in the presence of their younger sister instead.

Generally, Zuko avoided his soulmate.  It was easier for everyone, and he was starting to think that the concept of love was an elaborate hoax.  But then everything changed, starting with a girl named Mai.

Spilling a cup of ice cream on his sister's best friend was not the best first introduction Zuko had ever had to endure.  Especially given the fact that the girl in question was really, really hot.

"So sorry about that," Zuko stammered, fumbling for the napkin dispenser.

To her credit, the girl didn't seem rattled.  She glanced at the ice cream on her dark red shirt with a bored, albeit slightly exasperated, expression.  "Gee.  How refreshing."

Zuko blushed.  "I said sorry," he mumbled.  He rubbed the soulmark on the back of his neck, the way he always did when nervous.

The girl rolled her eyes.  "Whatever.  You're Zuko, right? Azula told me to expect you. Although she didn't tell me to expect you to be like this." The girl wrinkled her nose as she looked him up and down.

Zuko was getting more and more flustered as he tried to keep his train of thought coherent.  "Yeah, I'm Zuko," he said, a little forcefully.  "Why? Who are you?"

"Mai," said the girl, who now had a name, in a voice that was almost a sigh.  "I'll see you around.  Going to find Azula now." She waved one pale hand languidly in his direction, the lights catching her black nail polish and making it gleam.  

As she walked away, Zuko tried to catch a glimpse of the back of her neck, but her hair, which was just as dark and reflective as her nails, obscured it.

"You like her," observed Azula, who was standing right behind him.  Her creepy ability to sneak up on people no matter where they were had never failed to make him jump.

"I do not!" Zuko said.  He'd never been a good liar.  Unlike Azula.

"Whatever you say," the fourteen-year-old replied, clearly not convinced.  "I don't think your soulmate would like that, Zuzu."

"Shut up," Zuko muttered.

"What a snappy retort," Azula muttered, examining her nails.  "I really don't know how you think of them."

"Whatever," Zuko said, trying and failing to control his blushing.  "Have fun."

 "We will!" Azula called after him as he stormed off.  He sat in his room for a while, trying to do homework, until he got bored and, hearing noises from downstairs, decided to investigate.

"You're watching a Disney movie?" Zuko said, looking on in disbelief.

"We're making fun of The Little Mermaid," Mai corrected, grabbing the remote and pausing it.  She raised one eyebrow in an almost artful manner.  "Care to join us?"

Zuko deliberated for a moment.  He hated his sister, and spending extended amounts of time with her wasn't really his idea of fun.  But on the other hand, this could be a chance to smooth things over with Mai after the earlier awkwardness.  No way could he pass that up.  "Sure, why not?" He seated himself on the couch next to Mai.  "I hate that movie."

She almost smiled.  Azula snatched the remote control and pressed play.

The next hour consisted of snarky comments about the plot, romance, design, soundtrack, and scientific implausibility of The Little Mermaid, mostly supplied by Mai and Azula, although Zuko chimed in whenever he thought of something that didn't sound completely idiotic.

Finally, it was over.  The three sat there for a second before Mai broke the silence.  "That was so happy I think I'm going to puke."

Zuko laughed.  He was liking this girl more and more.  "Every time," he agreed.

Mai turned towards him.  "Your family doesn't strike me as one for Disney."

"We're not," Zuko said.  "Dad says it's a waste of time.  Mom was the Disney fan in our family." He didn't add the "until she left".  He didn't need to.

"And you've always agreed with Mom, haven't you, Zuzu?" Azula said, smirking.

In that moment, there was nothing Zuko wanted more than to murder his sister.  He went with a classic "Shut up" instead, which earned him an annoyingly unbothered laugh from Azula and a quizzical look from Mai.

"Alright, well, you two have fun being depressing together," Azula said, pursing red lips.  "I'm going to get something productive accomplished this weekend, and I can't do it if I keep hanging around.  Zuko, for once in your miserable life, do try not to make a fool of yourself in front of a girl who isn't family." With that, she swept out of the living room.

"You're just going to leave your guest here to do homework?" Zuko yelled after her, annoyed at her ability to get the last word.  He turned to Mai and flinched at the sharp look she was giving him.

"I can function in someone else's home, Zuko," she said, rolling her eyes.

"Right," he stammered.  "I didn't mean to offend-I mean, it's just-"

Mai looked slightly amused now.  Was she capable of having strong emotions? "Are you done?"

Zuko could feel himself heating up again and chose not to answer that question.  He'd already embarrassed himself enough for one lifetime.  "Do you need anything?" He asked instead.

Mai stretched, then relaxed, leaning over the side of the couch lazily like a long, lanky cat.  "I'm fine."

A strange silence fell over them.  Zuko felt the need to say something to ease the tension.  "Um, so I was wondering," he began, not sure exactly where he was going with this, "to, um, apologize for the stuff earlier-" he could have slapped himself.  Why did he have to bring that up? How stupid could he be?

At least he had her attention now.  "You were wondering?" She prompted.

"Yeah, so I was thinking that maybe to, you know, make up for that . . . maybe I could take you out for ice cream or something?" He looked up at her hopefully, hands fidgeting.

She turned her head to look at him, hair shifting to reveal the edge of an inky black mark.  "Ice cream?"

Shit.  He hadn't forgotten that aspect of their awkward introduction, but it had drifted to the back of his mind, and he only considered the implications of what he was saying after he'd said it.  "Oh god, sorry!" He blurted.  "It doesn't have to be ice cream, we could just go for-I don't know-coffee, or tea, or something?" His voice squeaked on the end of the sentence, making him cringe inwardly.

Another raise of a thin eyebrow.  "Tea?"

"I know it sounds a little stereotypical," Zuko said, wishing he could make himself stop talking, "but my uncle owns a great place.  It's quiet, out of the way-" Zuko was starting to get the distinct feeling that he was fucking things up more with every word that came out of his mouth.  He pressed on.  "-but the tea is great, and I'll try not to, um, spill anything."

She eyed him for a few seconds and he tried not to look at the back of her neck.  "Sure, why not," she said, shrugging passively.  "Are you free Saturday?"

"I've got Japanese stuff with Azula at three, but I'm fine until then," Zuko said, heart feeling like it would hammer out of his chest.

"Cool."

"Cool."

He grinned at her, and she gave him a sort-of smile back.

Just when they had settled into a comfortable sort of silence, it was shattered by the sound of loud rap music, as well as laughter, overly high volume conversation, and several honks of a car horn.

"That would be my ride," Mai said with a sigh.  Azula came down the stairs, a scowl on her face, but it smoothed itself into a smile when she saw Mai.  

"Sorry to see you go, Mai.  I had a great time." She leaned forward, embracing the other girl, and Mai reciprocated stiffly.

Pulling back from the hug, she turned to Zuko.  "See you on Saturday?"

"Yes! Definitely! Absolutely!" Zuko said, smiling a bit wider than necessary.

She waved slightly, then turned and disappeared out the door.

Zuko collapsed backward onto the couch.  Never before had the ceiling looked so beautiful.

Azula leaned over the back of the couch, smirking down at him.  "Don't say a word," he warned her, scowling.  Surprisingly, she obeyed, tossing up her hands and turning away.  His smile returned.  What soulmate?