“Sorry I’m late.” Half-falling onto the bench beside Mai, Zuko tried to catch his breath. “The meeting… went over time.”
“It’s fine. I get it.”
“It’s just this new idea Aang had,” Zuko continued. “You know, the one about the other Air Temples? There are so many people fighting against it, saying it shouldn’t be a priority – there are people who need our help right now, rebuilding after the war, all that kind of stuff...”
“I get it.” Mai sent him an exasperated look. “Fire Lord stuff, yada yada. I don’t need to hear all the details.”
“Right.” Zuko coughed
Mai raised her eyebrows.
“Sooo...” Zuko rubbed at the back of his neck. “What have… you been doing, lately?”
Mai sighed deeply. “Hanging with Ty Lee, mostly. Avoiding my parents.”
“Oh yeah. Have they been bothering you?”
“This is why we broke up, you know that?” Mai said sharply.
“Sorry!” Zuko let out a puff of breath. “It’s just that there’s been so much going on – and the worst part isn’t even the other ministers or anything right now. Aang was so gung-ho about this plan, but as soon as War Minister Zhen brought up the refugees he just totally fell apart. He’s been feeling really guilty about placing his own culture above other people, even though his idea makes total sense-”
“Wait wait wait.” Mai held up a hand. “You’ve been hanging out with the Avatar? Like, in your free time?”
“His name is Aang,” Zuko said, peeved. “And, yes.”
“So you have time for him but not for me?” When Zuko opened his mouth again Mai cut in. “Oh, this is so the reason why we broke up and I didn’t even know it yet.”
“I – wait, what? Look, I already apologised for not having enough time-”
“But you do have the time. For Aang.”
The way she said it made Zuko extremely uncomfortable.
“Well… yeah. Like you said, he’s the Avatar. Us working together it really important.”
“I’m not talking about work. More like...” And now she smirked, more than a little meanly. “Pleasure, perhaps?”
“What?!” He was almost more annoyed with himself for how red he suddenly got. “A-Aang is a kid, what are you even implying?!”
“He’s thirteen. Not much younger than me.” Mai was still smiling.
He knew that. It was almost impossible now for him to remember when he had once dismissed Aang as a mere child, and in the year since then, he had more than proven himself Zuko’s equal.
“So, what, you think… ugh!” He couldn’t even say it.
“That you care more about him than you ever did for me? Yeah, pretty much. Though until a minute ago I wouldn’t have thought it was the same kind...”
“I do not have a crush on him,” Zuko growled. “You’re being ridiculous!”
“And you’re overreacting.”
“I always overreact!”
Mai laughed. “Okay, you got me there. I can’t argue with that.”
Zuko huffed, still intensely uncomfortable – and uneasy at his own discomfort.
“Why… why would you even think something like that?” he muttered. “Do we really spend so much time together? Do we act differently around each other? What would that even look like...”
“Hey. Relax.” He felt a comforting hand on his shoulder, but he wasn’t soothed at all. “I was just joking. And it’s not like it’d be something to actually get upset over, anyway.”
“I’m not!” Zuko sighed in frustration and picked himself up. “I should get back to work...”
“Fine. Don’t keep your boyfriend waiting.”
When Zuko glared over his shoulder, Mai only smiled mysteriously.
“So it’s been a month since you and Katara broke up, huh.”
Aang slurped down his bundle of noodles and licked his lips. “...yeah. Why?”
“Weeeell, no big reason.” Sokka leaned back in his chair, ignoring Katara’s suspicious look. “I was just thinking – I mean, you’re free now, right? You can do what you want, go where you want...”
“You’re kidding, right?” Toph grunted around chunks of tofu. “He’s less free than ever – all his time is spent in boring meetings with annoying old people!”
“Yeah, but he’s not on the run,” Sokka shot back. “He doesn’t need to keep moving from place to place, and hiding who he is...”
“Get to the point, Sokka.”
“I’m just saying – between all that and you being the Avatar, well… I wondered if there was anyone else you had your eye on lately!”
“Hey...” Aang glanced awkwardly at Katara. “Um, isn’t this kind of...”
“No, it’s fine. Don’t worry about me.” Katara waved her hand, smiling at Aang sincerely. “I don’t mind. Like I said – I enjoyed trying things out with you, but what I really want for you right now is to move on.”
“Wow, harsh,” Toph said. “Didn’t know you had it in you, Sugar Queen!”
“Oh, no, I didn’t mean it like that! I just meant – I couldn’t be a good enough girlfriend for you so I really want you to find someone else! If that’s what you want! I don’t want to push you into anything either...”
“No, no, it’s fine!” Aang shrugged and pushed away his empty bowl. “But for what it’s worth, I’m not looking or anything like that now, anyway. I’m way too busy with everything with Zuko, anyway!”
“...huh.” Sokka rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“Nothing. Just… huh.”
“Are we done here? I’m sick of this gross romantic stuff already,” Toph said with a loud sigh.
“Oh, sure, maybe… I just think it’s kind of interesting that I asked if you had anyone you were interested in, and you immediately thought of Zuko,” Sokka said, triumphantly.
“Wait, what?!” Aang said, cheeks heating.
“Yeah, ‘what’ is right!” Katara’s hand thudded onto the table as she leaned forward to glare at Sokka. “Are you seriously suggesting that Aang might like Zuko?!”
“Yeah, I would never wanna do something like that!” Aang said quickly, waving his hands. “That’s just crazy!”
“And now you too!” Toph said. “Maybe this is an interesting subject after all – we’re finally finding out what you all really think about each other!”
“You gotta admit it’s a pretty cool idea though,” Sokka said. “I mean, the Avatar and the Fire Lord! Nobody’d be able to cross you two!”
“He’s not going to think about it because there’s no way something like that would ever happen,” Katara said firmly.
“Yeah! I mean, no, I mean -” Aang waved his hands even faster, desperately wishing he could escape this conversation. “Why would I ever wanna date Zuko? I can’t even imagine that! Can you imagine that? Why are we even talking about this, anyway?”
“See? You’re making him uncomfortable.”
Sokka snorted, grin forming. “Yeah – just like he always used to whenever your name got brought up...”
“What?! I never acted any way because of Katara!”
Toph laughed. “C’mon, Twinkle Toes, you don’t gotta have my badass lie-reading abilities to read your face. And by the way, I’m preeeeetty sure you’re lying right now, too.”
“No I’m not!” Aang glared at her. “Zuko is totally ugly, I’d never want to date him, ever!”
“You did say that to me one time...” Katara said slowly. She was staring at Aang in dawning shock.
“I knew it!” Sokka crowed. “You do have a thing for Zuko!”
“Must be a type,” Toph added. “Overly serious angry ones, I guess?”
Katara didn’t even acknowledge the insult. Aang squirmed, avoiding her gaze.
“Is that true?” she asked quietly. “Do you have feelings for him?”
“No! I mean… I don’t… think so?” He bit his lip.
He really hadn’t ever thought about it before. Ever since he’d woken up in the future, the only person he’d ever seen that way was Katara – even since their break up, it’d taken him ages to stop moping.
But the more he thought about it, the more sense it started to make. He’d always seen something in Zuko the others hadn’t, and had always felt a connection to him – one that reminded him a lot of his old friendship with Kuzon. And come to think of it, Aang might have had a bit of a crush on him, too, back then…
Oh no. Maybe he did have a crush on Zuko.
“I’m not mad.” Katara was speaking softly, and when Aang looked up, she was smiling sincerely. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to act that way earlier – I guess it was just… a hard thing to imagine. But if you really did feel that way about him, I’d totally support you.”
“Plus, I already told him that I’d destroy him if he ever did anything to hurt you,” she added helpfully. “Come to think of it… I doubt he’s forgotten, but it might be a good idea to remind him, just to be sure.”
“Haha, that’s not really necessary… but still, thanks.”
They were supposed to meet that afternoon – ostensibly, to discuss the temple situation.
Aang hesitated, wondering what to do, for a good half hour in a nearby corridor before finally appearing.
“Sorry I’m late, haha,” he boomed, only to be instantly cut through.
“Where’ve you been?! I was worried about you!”
Aang gasped, instantly guilty. “I’m sorry! I was just...”
Zuko fumed, but then abruptly dropped Aang’s gaze. “...it’s fine,” he said. “I mean...we’re both busy people, right? It’s not like we need to spend all of our time together.”
“...oh, yeah, of course.” Aang coughed. “Yeah, I was busy with a lot of, like, really important… Avatar stuff.”
There was an awkward silence.
“So,” Zuko said eventually, trying to push all thoughts of his conversation with Mai away from his mind. “Have you thought more about what to do with the temples?”
Aang’s expression fell. “...no. Or, I mean, I’ve thought about it! But… I guess it is selfish to be focusing on something like that when there are still people hurting, so...”
“Not at all!” Zuko shook his head firmly. “Those temples are all that remain of the Air Nomad civilisation – anyone would want to preserve their culture like that. Yet they’ve been left to rot for a hundred years, it’s insane! Though… I guess it doesn’t mean much, coming from the grandson of the guy who’s responsible...”
“It does mean a lot.” Aang reached for Zuko’s hand, clasping it tightly. “That legacy stuff is important, but so is who we are now, you know? And right now, you’re my friend.”
Zuko met his eyes. Why was it that Aang always seemed to understand him perfectly? And when Aang smiled like that, it was hard to remember why he usually found smiling so difficult.
Aang beamed. No matter how confused or helpless he felt, he always seemed to be able to make Zuko feel better, and that made him feel amazing.
...and then, in an instant, they both leapt back.
“I-I mean, you’re a good friend! A friend. So all of that stuff is important between us as friends!” Aang babbled.
“Yeah!” Zuko agreed eagerly. “Like, since we’re friends, it’s no wonder we’d listen to each other? That’s just what friends do!”
“Exactly!” Aang laughed. “It’s weird how some people don’t understand that!”
“Right?” Zuko shook his head. “Sometimes it feels like we’re the only sane ones here...”
“Yeah...” It was a nice thought, actually. He and Zuko really did have a bond that nobody else seemed to be part of.
“I mean…!” Aang gulped, cheeks already going pink again. “Not like we have something special between us!”
“No!” Zuko barked, startled. “Never! Nothing special here at all!”
“All totally normal here, yessir! Just two totally normal friends who have a normal level of closeness with each other!”
“...normal. Yeah.” Zuko frowned.
“I mean it’s not like we could go out with each other or anything, haha!” Aang continued. “That’s just dumb! I don’t like you nearly that much!”
“So you don’t like me.” Zuko looked away.
“Yeah! I- Wait, no! That’s not what I meant!”
“That’s what you said, isn’t it?” Zuko pointed out, anger growing. “Just totally normal guys who don’t like each other THAT much.”
“I just meant I didn’t want to go out with you!”
“Well, maybe I don’t want to go out with you either!” Zuko huffed, crossing his arms.
Aang stared. Zuko stared.
After a moment, Aang asked, “...wait, are you mad I said I didn’t want to date you?”
“No!” Zuko looked away, cheeks red.
Aang bit his lip, swallowing heavily.
For several long moments the boys both stood in place, unable to meet one another’s eyes.
“...okay, maybe I actually… don’t mind,” Aang said quietly, after a long pause.
“...don’t mind what?”
“You know! ...dating you. You are, uh. Actually a really good friend who I care about a lot.”
Zuko’s breath caught.
After some moments, he forced his throat to work. “...and… you too. Are a good friend, I mean! And… maybe…” Zuko groaned loudly, putting his head in his hands. “What am I doing...”
“I’m really not sure,” Aang said with an awkward chuckle. When Zuko moaned again, Aang tentatively touched his sleeve. “But, I’m not really sure what I’m doing, either… so I guess we’re equal.”
Zuko didn’t pull away from his hand, so Aang kept it there.
Eventually Zuko took his hands away from his face. “You really want to go out with me?”
“Only if you do?” Aang said without thinking.
“But… I’d be a terrible boyfriend! Was a terrible boyfriend! And you and me, it’d be just… it’s just…” Zuko looked away. “I was awful to you.”
“So was I!”
“Only because I started it! And you were actually working for good, y’know? Not…”
“Hey.” Aang reached for Zuko’s hand. Unexpectedly, he gripped tightly onto Aang, squeezing his palm. “It doesn’t matter what you were. Only what you are. And you are one of the closest friends I’ve ever had.”
“...even back then, you believed in me.” Zuko’s eyes were intense. “Do you… you really wouldn’t mind if...”
“If we became boyfriends?” Aang said, quietly.
“...yeah. You’d really want that?”
Aang couldn’t help it. He bounded forward, pressing his lips to Zuko’s cheek in a light kiss. Zuko chuckled in surprise, already smiling again.
“How’s that for an answer?”
Zuko grinned. “I guess that works,” he said, and then added sheepishly, “neither of us tend to be all that good with words, huh?”
Aang chuckled. “As long as you know that I like you, that’s fine with me!”