The year since Zuko's coronation as Fire Lord had been a hectic one. His ascension to the throne, while fairly well received by the other nations, had not gone over so well at home. There were the select few in the capital and scattered individuals throughout the nation that supported him, but...
One hundred years of war had altered his nation. The citizens of his country had been mentally trained to believe that they were the best-that other nations, other people, were not as great as them. There were many people who whole-heartedly believed that the Fire Nation deserved to rule the world and when Zuko declared the war was over, they took it as a sign of cowardice and weakness.
There was some distrust from the citizens of other nations, of course, but Zuko had not assumed that every member of the other nations would immediately trust him. He had known that it would take years of hard work for the other nations to trust the Fire Nation again. The world would not be so quick to forgive an entire century of warfare and destruction. But Zuko accepted this. He expected it.
What he hadn't expected was to face opposition from his very own people. Though his coronation had been full of men and women who supported him and the direction he hoped to aim the nation, he had since visited parts of the country with citizens who hollered and hissed at him, citizens who threw half-rotten cabbages. He had been told that his father had had good reason to banish him and that it had been too merciful a punishment. Crowds had hollered that his father should have simply killed him in the Agni Kai that had scarred him so greatly.
Though for every village like that there were ten villages that simply wanted to prosper or wanted to see long gone relatives return from war, Zuko couldn't help but feel beaten down by the citizens that would have liked nothing more than to see Ozai reigning the world as the Phoenix King.
So he had travelling the country, visiting villages one by one, trying to enforce the idea that ending the war was good for the nation, that it was good for the people. He didn't think he'd actually managed to convince a single person yet.
It had been a long, long year.
Though right now he had a slightly more... personal issue he was trying to sort out.
He raised his fist to knock on the door to Sokka's room, but hesitated. He wasn't sure what he was doing, even after mulling it over for days.
It had been months since the team had been together, each having been out on their own missions. While Zuko had been touring the Fire Nation, Sokka had gone to the Northern Water Tribe, Toph back to the Earth Kingdom, while Aang and Katara had chosen to travel together through various parts of the world. All of it was diplomatic, of course, each asking those they visited what the Fire Nation could do to improve their relationship with each part of the world. They had all been keeping contact through mail, up until now.
Yesterday, Zuko had arrived at the royal vacation palace, just a few hours travel outside the Fire Nation capital. Zuko had arranged to meet everyone there by the next day so that they could gather their findings. In three days, on the anniversary of his coronation, Zuko was planning to address the nation to update them on how they were faring with other parts of the world and what he needed those loyal to him to do in order to help the country.
Late that evening, Sokka had shown up at the palace's gates. Zuko had been surprised at the difference a half a year had made in the young man. Even in such a short time, Sokka seemed to have shot up at least two inches, making him a little taller than Zuko now, his shoulders broadening slightly. His hair was starting to grow out as well, Zuko noting to himself that Sokka really did resemble his father. After the teen had eaten enough meat for three of Zuko's soldiers, he was shown his quarters and said he was going to retire, as he'd spent the entire day traveling and was exhausted. Zuko had understood.
But he didn't know who else he could talk to. There was no one else his age, no one that he was close enough to that he could even feel comfortable enough with to breech the topic.
And it would probably be best to get this out of the way, before the others showed up the next day.
The young Fire Lord inhaled deeply and knocked.
After a moment, there was still no answer, so Zuko knocked again.
Just as Zuko was about to give up, the door opened to reveal Sokka in the middle of a huge yawn, face scrunched and mouth open wide, clothes frumpled and hair messy; he'd obviously been sleeping. As the yawn ended, he slumped against the doorframe, eyeing Zuko sleepily, "What's up, Fire Lord?"
Zuko didn't think he'd heard anyone make the title sound so casual before, but then, he hadn't heard Sokka actually refer to him as the "Fire Lord" before now. Instead of acting on his original intentions, however, he stalled. "I'm sorry, I woke you. I'll just..."
But Sokka waved him off before he could finish, wagging his hand at him and waving him inside. The tanned teen moved back to his bed, where the sheets were rumpled, and sat down on the edge of it. As Zuko entered the room and shut the door behind him, Sokka began to look a bit more alert. He asked again, "What's going on?"
Zuko approached Sokka's bed, but only sat down after a moment of hesitation, taking a spot on the very end of the bed, as far as he could sit from Sokka without falling to the floor. For some reason, the thought of sitting any closer just... felt weird, like a forbidden breach of personal space.
"I, uh, wanted to talk to you about something. It's..." Zuko hesitated just a moment more before gathering his courage and just blurting it out, "about Mai."
A frown flickered onto Sokka's mouth before his whole face became very, very impassive. He nodded to indicate that Zuko should continue.
Zuko's head turned from Sokka, unable to look at the teen. "Well, uh. She wants to, um. You know."
Zuko nodded, feeling his face heating up. Even thinking about it was ridiculously embarrassing, but he'd started now and there was no stopping. "We've been talking and she says she wants to... you know."
"Play the tsungi horn?" Sokka suggested.
"What?" Zuko's head snapped back to Sokka, his embarrassment broken by sheer confusion. How in the world had Sokka gotten that out of what he'd said?
But Sokka was grinning ever so slightly at him and he repeated himself, with emphasis, "Yeah. She wants you guys to play the tsungi horn, right?"
"Yes," Zuko confirmed quickly. Somehow, the euphemism made this discussion about a million times easier. "Yes, the tsungi horn. She wants us to play. She said that she's been waiting a long time and that she thinks we should play it."
Sokka prompted, "And the problem is?"
"I don't think I know how to play," Zuko explained with only minimal flushing.
"And you wanted to talk to me about this?" Sokka questioned him with an eyebrow raised.
Zuko blushed harder and tried to explain, "Yeah. You're kind of my only friend. And I know you have some experience," he almost stopped, but then quickly amended, "with the tsungi horn. I mean, I saw you and the Kyoshi warrior together. I kind of figured..."
Sokka let out a sharp laugh, "You mean Suki? That was over months ago."
"Really?" Zuko started, taken aback.
"Yeah," Sokka answered with a nonchalant shrug, "I had to focus on my work with the water tribe and she needed to spend time with the Warriors in the Earth Kingdom. We both thought breaking it off was for the best."
"O-oh." Zuko's head fell, unsure of what to think, or if he should continue.
The younger teen decided for him. "But really? You don't know how to play? Is that the only problem, because nobody knows at first. Everything takes practice."
Zuko wasn't sure if he had the will to confess the real problem, but... Sokka seemed so eager to listen, and this was the reason he'd come in here. "Well... Mai's kind of enthusiastic about it, but any time she... tries to give me a lesson, I can't get... interested. I don't know if I want to... play the tsungi horn."
Sokka seemed thoughtful for a moment, a hand on his chin. It was a look Zuko realized he recognized; it was the same look Sokka got on his face when he was trying to create a plan. Obviously, he was considering his answer hard.
"Well," Sokka finally started after a moment, "maybe the tsungi horn isn't the instrument for you."
"But what if I'm just nervous? What if I'm so nervous, it's just... hiding how much I want to play?" Zuko questioned weakly.
But Sokka shook his head. "No, even if you were nervous about playing, you'd still know if you wanted to, trust me. Playing an instrument really lets you overcome any nervousness you might have, if you've found the right one. Like I said, maybe the tsungi horn's not for you. Maybe you'd rather play... the zheng, or the pipa, or something."
Zuko was only half-sure he understood what Sokka was suggesting as the metaphor became a bit deluded. He protested vaguely, dropping the instrument references, "But I... care about Mai. She's really been there for me, and she cares about me too."
Throwing his hands up defensively, Sokka carried on, "Liking the music an instrument makes and actually wanting to play that instrument are not one in the same, friend. You might like the sound of the tsungi horn, but if you have to force yourself to play it, you won't make anyone happy. If you don't want to play the tsungi horn, now or ever, the best thing you can do is just be upfront about it. You're not doing the tsungi horn a favor by forcing yourself to make music with it."
Zuko couldn't help but feel Sokka had gotten carried away in his own metaphor. After a stunned moment wherein Zuko attempted to decode what had been said, he said blankly, "You lost me."
Sokka sighed with a touch of exasperation, with a look that seemed to express that he expected no less of the socially-stunted Fire Lord. There was a bluntness to his voice as he translated, "Maybe you're just not attracted to Mai. If you were, you'd feel it, no matter how nervous you are. If you two have tried anything and nothing... you know, fires up, then chances are, you're not attracted to her and you probably never will be. And you might just need to break it off, because trying to do something just to spare her feelings is only going to hurt her more in the end. You get it now?"
Oh, he got it, but he wasn't sure he wanted to. It was hard to wrap his mind around what Sokka had told him. He nodded faintly, then stood from Sokka's bed and excused himself. "I, uh... should let you get to bed. It's late."
And before Sokka could say anything in protest, Zuko left the room and hurried back to his own.
Sokka watched helplessly as Zuko hurried out of the room. After the door slammed, he couldn't help but feel maybe he was wrong. Maybe Zuko was just nervous. After all, how could Sokka know how Zuko felt about anything, much less Mai?
He just couldn't help but feel... opposed to Mai. He wasn't even sure why. At first, he'd thought it was just because she'd once been their enemy, but so had Zuko, and Sokka had long since been over that.
It was just that every time he thought of her, his brain flashed back to the time he'd walked in on her and Zuko sharing a kiss and it felt like someone had punched him square in the sternum. Trying to imagine Zuko and Mai going any further stirred up that pain. Sokka hadn't reflected on just what that might mean. He was altogether sure he didn't want to.
After a minute more, he felt fed up with himself. Maybe he'd been too harsh with Zuko. Listening had never been his greatest skill, but he could have tried a little harder to let Zuko explain himself. Breaking up with Mai certainly couldn't have been the only conclusion. He should go talk to him. Sokka sighed at himself, ran his hand through his hair to smooth it out, and then got up and left the room.
But the palace was larger than he'd thought and his sense of direction betrayed him. He'd thought that Zuko's room had been around a corner, down the hall, and down a flight of stairs, on the left, but... maybe it had been down the hall, downstairs, and around a corner? Or downstairs, around a corner, and down a hall…
Thirty minutes later, he was hopelessly lost. He'd gotten himself so turned around he wasn't even sure which direction his own room was anymore.
It was only after getting lost that he remembered that Zuko had told him not to go wandering. He'd said that both this and the royal palace had been built in such a way so as to specifically confuse intruders. It gave his family and his soldiers a sort of home town advantage in case of an invasion.
Sokka sighed to himself again and slowed his pace. He could only hope now that maybe he'd come across a landmark of some sort-he was starting to feel really exhausted, and the last thing he wanted to do was fall asleep in the hallway, especially when there was such a cozy bed waiting for him.
After another ten minutes or so of aimless wandering, Sokka heard voices up ahead. Soldiers! Surely, he was a bit embarrassed that he'd gotten lost, but he really just wanted to get back to his room.
But as Sokka approached the end of the hall, he couldn't help but notice that the men were conversing in tense whispers.
"...out of the way already."
Suspicions immediately alerted, Sokka pressed himself to the wall, edging along it silently. He strained his ears to focus on the hushed voices around the corner.
"Patience, Yun. The speech is in three days. All will happen in due time, my friend." He heard a hand clap down on a padded shoulder. "Now come, we're not to discuss this outside the Colonel's chambers."
Their footsteps started in his direction and Sokka immediately tried not to look suspicious. He conjured up the most innocent look he knew as the soldiers rounded the corner.
Both men seemed taken aback to see him there, and the older of the two (the one who wasn't Yun, Sokka noted), said with surprise, "Master Sokka. What are you doing this far from your room?"
Sokka grinned, chuckled faintly, and rubbed the back of his head. "Well, I was heading for the bathroom, and I, uh... got lost. This place is huge, you know?"
The soldiers exchanged a quick glance before the older man smiled faintly at him. "Of course. Would you like for us to lead you back to your quarters?"
Sokka felt like the question was some sort of test, but he planned on passing. "Well, the bathroom, if you don't mind. I never found it."
The man's smile went a little crooked, but he nodded and then led Sokka to the bathroom nearest his room. Sokka didn't actually have to go, but took a reasonable time in the bathroom before popping back out and allowing the men to lead him down the hall to his room.
Once inside he closed and locked the door behind him, his mind suddenly racing. If he just heard what he thought he'd heard... well, they just might have a big problem on their hands. Were the soldiers planning an attack? Could it actually be true?
He rubbed his face and collapsed onto his bed. Even if it were true, he apparently had until the speech to worry about it-he could reflect on it tomorrow, when he wasn't feeling so tired. And he could run it by the others, who should all be showing up soon.
Zuko hurried down the halls back to his room, disrobed, and crawled into bed, but he couldn't go to sleep with so much on his mind. He tossed and turned for nearly an hour, mulling over what Sokka had told him.
And the more he thought about it, the more it seemed right. At first, the thought of breaking up with Mai over this little problem seemed silly, but maybe there was a bigger issue at hand. Maybe he just wasn't attracted to Mai. If he just brought it down to a simple question of whether or not he wanted to be intimate with her, regardless of his feelings, regardless of hers, if he thought about it on a purely physical level... it was blatantly obvious that he didn't want her. The hugging, the kissing... it was sweet, endearing, but it didn't excite him and he had never wanted to go any further.
He cared for her (though whether he would go so far as to say love, he was unsure) and he didn't want to hurt her and that had blurred his thinking, but now that Sokka had suggested it, it was so obvious that he didn't want Mai.
It suddenly occurred to him that Mai had specifically warned him against trying to break up with her, but... he had to do something. Sokka was right. Trying to carry on a relationship with her just to try to appease her would only make the both of them more miserable in the end.
Zuko decided he would talk to her when she came to the palace in two days. He would try and explain himself to her and just hope she would understand.
He slept fitfully, at best, and awoke feeling less than rested, dressing lightly, and heading down for breakfast. He was surprised to see Sokka awake already. Though the other had always woken them up early when they were travelling, Zuko had learned long ago that Sokka liked nothing better than sleeping in. When they couldn't know when the others would show up, he would have thought Sokka would have cherished the extra time he had to doze.
But Sokka was eating as if he'd just been told this was the last time he would ever be allowed to eat-or he was eating as he always ate, Zuko noted fondly. He was just finishing his first plate of Komodo sausage and fresh fruit when Zuko took a seat at the head of the table.
Sokka aimed a grin at him that seemed almost apologetic, though Zuko wasn't sure why he thought that. He returned the smile regardless and broke the silence, "How did you sleep?"
"After spending the last six months between the North and South poles?" Sokka quipped, "I nearly melted. You have no idea how close you were to waking up to find a puddle of Sokka-goo all over your royal bed sheets. Other than that, not too bad."
Zuko smiled faintly; Sokka was still Sokka, sarcasm and all. "Spend a few days and you'll get used to it again. You never seemed to have trouble sleeping last year."
Before Sokka could make another comment, they were supplied with breakfast (Sokka with his second helping), and Zuko realized he was actually quite hungry. The food distracted them from conversation for a moment before Sokka asked, "So, any idea when the others are going to show?"
He shook his head. "No more than you. But they said they'd be here sometime today."
"Well, you know those guys," Sokka said, "Chances are they got themselves into some kind of trouble, and they'll all show up at the last minute."
Zuko nodded. Even with the world at peace, he somehow didn't doubt that Aang could find his way into a sticky situation. "Maybe we should start without them, then? The sooner I know what the Fire Nation needs to do, the sooner I can start doing it."
Sokka gave him a little shrug. "To be honest, there might not be much you can do for the water tribes."
"Really?" Zuko asked with a frown. He'd wanted to be able to do something.
"Yeah," Sokka told him, "The Northern Water Tribe is pretty much intact. Aang beat the troops back when the Fire Nation attacked, and the few damages there were were quickly fixed by the waterbenders. And Chief Arnook knows it was your uncle that fought back Zhao. He figures if the man who was willing to become a traitor to protect the balance of the elements supports you, he should too."
A little relieved smile crossed Zuko's face. It was nice to know that the entire world wouldn't need help recovering. And that he had some support from other parts of the world. "And the Southern Tribe?"
"Well, they're in worse shape. The soldiers have really done a number on our tribe over the years. Katara was the last bender left down there. But now that the waterways aren't being patrolled by Fire Nation ships, the north has sent down benders and healers and they're helping to rebuild the Southern Tribe and bring all the scattered villages back together."
"And there's nothing the Fire Nation can do?" Zuko asked.
"Not really. Keep the waterways clear, I guess. The tribes don't need help or supplies, since they can all bend and hunt. I think they're just happy to have the war over."
Zuko nodded and though he was happy to hear that the Water Tribes didn't need help, there was still something he wished he could do.
They finished breakfast while the talk moved to something more lighthearted; Sokka started telling Zuko about the children of the Tribes, the games he'd played, the jokes he'd told. It seemed as though Sokka's year had been filled with much more fun than Zuko's, though Zuko wasn't surprised. Sokka created fun and lightheartedness. Zuko was surprised to find himself laughing at Sokka's tales. He'd laughed so sparingly in recent times that he'd almost forgotten how good it felt.
After they finished, Zuko suggested they play a few rounds of Pai Sho to pass the time. He'd taught the younger teen the game in the last year, though he nearly regretted it. Sokka was great at it, while Zuko was only so-so. Even learning the game directly from his uncle had only helped so much, while Sokka was a great big ball of raw ingenuity. He always came up with some brilliant strategy to get around whatever Zuko had planned.
Even though the rounds of Pai Sho were lessons in humility for Zuko, he found himself enjoying every moment of it. For that morning, he wasn't Fire Lord Zuko, he wasn't the leader of a nation, he wasn't a warrior; he wasn't even a firebender. He was just Zuko, just a teenage boy playing a game with a good friend.
And it felt amazing. Zuko felt like he could breathe again.
A little bit before lunch, there was a faint, familiar thump out in the yard, and Zuko and Sokka exchanged a glance before quickly abandoning the game and hurrying around to the yard.
Outside, they found Appa, with Aang, Katara, and Toph slowly dismounting the sky bison. Sokka and Zuko ran over to the group, smiling. Seeing everyone again was so exciting. The last time Zuko had seen them had been a half a year ago, and he hadn't seen Toph in longer.
Before he knew it, Appa licked him affectionately, nearly knocking him to the ground, while Momo hopped onto Sokka's head. Greetings were exchanged, including hugs from Katara and Aang, and an affectionate punch from Toph-who was surprisingly taller, nearly Katara's height.
All of them headed back inside for a light lunch, and then they got down to business. Toph, though her parents had lessened their hold on her, was still young and hadn't gotten around very much. The most she got out was when her mother took her to Ba Sing Se. She confessed that she was going a bit stir crazy and was hoping to have an extended visit in the Fire Nation.
Aang and Katara, on the other hand, had been able to travel everywhere on Appa. They had spent a few days in each town they'd visited, mostly throughout the Earth Kingdom, though they'd stopped in with the Water Tribes and a few Fire Nation villages as well. Amazingly, many of the villages were so isolated that they hadn't even known the war was over. Ba Sing Se was being rebuilt, slowly, but there were tentative plans to make the city more accessible from the outside. Most of the demands for the area were from smaller villages, asking for food, supplies, simply requesting back whatever the Fire Nation had taken. The Earth Nation was a proud people, and Zuko had expected no more than that-he'd already been creating ways to get food into the villages that he been directly occupied by soldiers.
But his speech was about how the other Nations felt about them, not just about what they could do, and it seemed like it may be a little more optimistic than he had hoped.
After the business was taken care of, Zuko went to write a quick letter to his uncle, who was waiting for him at the capital.
While he was gone, Sokka quickly got down to business. He leaned in to explain, "Guys, I think something bad is gonna happen."
Katara raised an eyebrow at him, grinned. "You always think something bad is gonna happen."
"And I'm usually right," Sokka told her grimly. "Look, last night I uh..." he almost told them that he went to try to talk to Zuko, but then realized that would require more explaining than he wanted to go through with and instead stuck with the bathroom lie. "I got lost looking for the bathroom and I heard these soldiers in the hall."
"What'd they say?" Aang asked with interest.
"The one said something like 'out of the way' and then the other one mentioned the speech and told the first guy to be patient and said something about not talking about it in the hallways."
Katara and Aang stared at him, as if waiting for something more, though it was Toph that actually spoke up, "That's it?"
"Yeah," Sokka replied, almost sheepishly. But he quickly remembered the very distinct feeling he'd had in his gut the night before, and tried to defend himself, "It might not sound like much, but what if it means something? 'Out of the way' sounds suspiciously like 'get Zuko out of the way,' don't you think?"
His sister rolled her eyes. "It could mean anything, Sokka. They're probably just talking about the speech. Zuko's asked village leaders from all over the Fire Nation, and people from the other nations to come to the capital, so it's gotten pretty busy. The soldiers have all been working overtime to keep the peace. But once the speech is over, everyone goes home."
Though the argument seemed reasonable, Sokka wouldn't be persuaded. "But why not talk about it in the halls?"
"Not everyone can put up with complaining the way we can, Sokka," Toph jested.
"But what if it means something? What if they're plotting to attack Zuko?" Sokka insisted.
Katara sighed at him. "You worry too much."
"Yeah, Sokka," Aang confirmed. "Zuko replaced all the soldiers who were loyal to Ozai as soon as he came into power and Iroh helped to handpick the soldiers in the Royal Guard. If any of them were planning on hurting Zuko, don't you think Iroh would have noticed something?"
Sokka frowned. Aang's reasoning was the most persuasive of all, but... he still felt like something was wrong. He wasn't going to let himself be convinced unless he investigated further. He sighed and admitted, "Maybe. But maybe not. Would it really hurt to look into it? To do some investigating tonight?"
"You do whatever you want, Sokka," Katara told him, "but I plan on getting a good night's sleep."
Aang gave him a little helpless shrug, silently agreeing with Katara.
Toph was the only one who didn't voice an opinion, but before Sokka could prod her into joining him, Zuko returned.
Sokka half-wished he could ask Zuko to accompany him. The last infiltration mission they'd teamed up on had gone fairly well, after all. But Sokka didn't want to freak Zuko out, not until he knew something for sure. The gang was right, he didn't have very much evidence, and there was no point in stressing Zuko over something he may very well have construed in his own mind.
Soon after, Katara and Aang convinced them all to go to the nearby village to explore the shops (they'd seen it while they were flying to the palace), and after Zuko dressed down to disguise himself, they were off. Over the next few hours, they popped in and out of the local shops, getting to see everywhere but a weapon shop on the far side of town. As dusk approached, Katara and Aang snuck off to watch the sun setting over the ocean from the cliff on the edge of the town.
After they got back, they sat down to a feast of a dinner with steamed fish, mountains of rice, stir-fried vegetables, and fresh fruit from town. Sokka ate three plates full and Katara pondered aloud how he avoided weighing five hundred pounds. Over dinner, they began sharing stories about people they'd met and the places they'd been. A year was a long time and they all seemed to have a great deal to share.
It was late by the time they'd headed off to bed, but Sokka, reminded of his task, was awake and alert. He waited until he thought everyone else would have headed to bed before leaving his room and venturing through the castle.
Earlier, he'd managed to casually slip into conversation a question about the colonel the soldiers had mentioned last night. It was a man named Masa, who'd only recently made the rank of Colonel, what with all the recent promotions that had occurred. He was currently in charge of the palace's perimeter, though he wasn't connected to Zuko's Royal Guard. The room operating as his quarters and office was located on the edge of the palace and Sokka had made sure that he wouldn't get lost this time.
He used every bit of stealth he possessed to make his way through the palace silently. Alert for distant voices that would signal the approach of soldiers, he headed toward the front of the building.
Then, he saw soldiers disappearing around a corner, and he hurried to catch up with them. Just in time, he saw them disappearing into the door he knew to be the colonel's room. He gazed around before sneaking up to the door, pressing his ear to it… but the voices on the other side were muffled. He couldn't hear much through the thick door, only that there were voices, and that they were talking heatedly inside. He picked up the occasional curse, but other than that, it was useless.
He frowned to himself, prepared to head back to his room. Maybe he could recruit Toph to help him the next night. Surely, she'd be able to hear through the door-or she could earthbend a gap in the stone wall, so they could hear and see what was going on.
No sooner had he pulled away from the door, he practically ran into a soldier. It wasn't one of the soldiers from the previous night, but the older male was eyeing him suspiciously. "Master Sokka, what are you doing here?"
Sokka grinned innocently at the soldier, spouting the lie he'd prepared. "I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd take a walk around the castle."
The soldier continued to look at him, examining him, but seemed to finally let it go. "Of course. I hope you can get to sleep soon then."
He then headed into the colonel's room, and Sokka hurried back to his room as quickly as he could, bolting the door behind him. The last thing he needed was to be kidnapped in the middle up the night by soldiers because he'd been snooping around. He fell asleep almost immediately and slept well into the morning.
Zuko slept poorly again that night with the knowledge that Mai would be showing up the next day. He knew he would need to talk to her and he could only hope that she would understand.
That morning, everyone but Sokka was at breakfast, and Zuko could barely touch the food on his plate, knowing Mai would be there any moment.
Soon after the breakfast plates had been cleared from the table, Mai walked in the door. Zuko stood to greet her with a tentative hug, and as soon as everyone else had said their greetings, Zuko whispered to her, "I need to talk to you about something."
She frowned at him, but nodded and together the two of them headed to Zuko's study.
Once there, Zuko wasn't sure how to begin. He didn't know how to even start this conversation.
But Mai apparently didn't feel like waiting. "What is it, Zuko?"
"Well, uh..." Zuko stuttered, "It's..."
"Oh, just spit it out," Mai said exasperatedly.
Zuko let out a breath, reminding himself that this was better for the both of them. Thinking that somehow gave him the strength he needed to continue. "Mai, I... I don't think I'm attracted to you."
Her frown deepened, but before she could say anything, Zuko rushed to explain himself, "It's not that you're not pretty-you really are! And I really do care about you... It's just... me. I just don't want to... be with you. And if I don't want you, I don't think it's fair to you to stay with you."
Mai stepped towards him, eyeing him warily, and before Zuko knew quite what she was going to do, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. He kissed her back, tentatively, his arms moving naturally behind her back, but he wasn't sure what she was doing, and the kiss did no more for him than it ever had.
After a moment, she pulled back, scrutinizing him, "Nothing?"
Zuko frowned and dropped his gaze. "I'm sorry."
Instead of blowing up at him, or getting angry... Mai just sighed and said, "Ty Lee told me this was going to happen."
Zuko was taken aback. "Ty... Lee?"
"Yeah," Mai explained with a half-hearted smile on her face, "she told me months ago that you didn't seem interested in me. I didn't want to believe it but... She was right, you know? You never did want to do anything more than kiss."
"I'm sorry, I just..."
"No, it's fine. You can't help it, right? If you could like me, you would," Mai said a bit helplessly.
Zuko nodded his agreement. "I definitely would."
"We've been drifting apart for months, you know. Was it because of this? Because you're not attracted to me?" Mai asked curiously.
"Yeah, I think so," Zuko admitted softly. He hadn't even thought about it, but now that Mai had mentioned it, they really had grown distant. Even though Zuko had been back to the palace every few days, he'd felt further and further from Mai. Perhaps he'd been distancing himself, without even realizing it. But he did care about her, and now that he didn't have to worry about unwanted advances, maybe they could at least talk again.
She gave him a little smile, and though Zuko could see a touch of sadness in it, he could see that she wasn't angry. She offered, "Are we still friends?"
"Yes," Zuko replied quickly. A wave of relief washed over him. He'd imagined a million scenarios, but none of them had ended on such a positive note. "So, you're okay with this?"
"I'd be lying to say I wasn't a little upset," she said. "But I saw it coming. I prepared myself for it. I actually asked you to go further as a test."
Zuko's eyes widened. "You did?"
"Yeah. Well, it was Ty Lee's idea, actually. When I told her what was happening, she thought it was because you didn't want me. She told me to offer it and said it would either make us or break us. I suppose it was the latter," she concluded with a little shrug.
Smart girl, that Ty Lee. Zuko had always thought that she was brighter than she acted.
After that, they shared an only semi-awkward embrace that made relief wash over him. Though Zuko knew Mai would be the last to throw a temper tantrum, or have some other extreme emotional outburst, he hadn't wanted to hurt her. Avoiding doing that had seemed impossible, but now that it was over... Zuko felt amazing. He felt free.
They left the room together to rejoin the others and for the rest of the morning, they spent time catching up with Mai and sharing more of what happened over the year. Sokka joined them just in time for lunch, adding to the group's liveliness.
And with the weight of what had just happened lifted from his shoulders, Zuko thought he may have never felt better.