Zuko really shouldn’t have been surprised.
There was a thought that lingered in the back of his mind that this situation could happen as soon as he received the letter to attend a meeting in Republic City.
Despite the possibility, when he hears the tapping on the door to the spacious balcony of the room he is occupying for the weekend, he can’t help but feel something akin to irritation for being interrupted this late at night. Is having some tea and catching up on his reading in between this droll, two-day meeting too much to ask for?
As much as he prepared himself for this situation, his heart jumps to his throat when it’s Aang that’s standing outside of his room’s balcony, holding his glider and trying to mask his worried face.
It doesn’t fool Zuko for a second. Aang’s never been a good liar.
“To what do I owe the honor of a late night visit from the Avatar?”
Maybe the question is a little sarcastic. Maybe he could’ve picked a kinder greeting. But his heart won’t stop hammering and he needs to lash out at something for it. He tries to ignore the slip in Aang’s facade after he asks.
“I...just wanted to visit you. It’s been a while.”
“Visit me,” Zuko repeats flatly.
“I, ah, yes,” Aang responds, looking to the ground, sheepish. There is a small, petty victory in knowing he at least feels some kind of embarrassment.
“At nearly midnight?”
“Well, you always stayed up late.” Aang looks like the kid caught putting his hand in the cookie jar— but he doesn’t break eye contact.
Zuko holds onto Aang’s gaze, his hand still resting on the door’s knob, not moving an inch to let his uninvited guest in. Slamming the door would be an easy solution.
But Zuko’s weak and he knows it.
He sighs, knowing this battle is doomed to failure, moving out of the doorway and gesturing impatiently for Aang to go through.
Aang sits at the table, opposite of where Zuko was just sitting earlier. Zuko, probably with more aggression than he should, flips over one of the tea cups on the table before placing it down firmly in front of Aang, pouring him tea.
“Thanks,” Aang says quietly, reaching for the steaming cup, sipping it as Zuko takes his seat on the other side of the table.
“Why are you here?” Blunt, to the point— whatever it takes to end this as swiftly and gracefully as possible.
“Well,” Aang starts, putting the cup down. “I wanted to— clear the air, I guess. Make sure things are— fine. You were really aggressive with me today. Even Toph noticed. I just, you know, don’t want what happened to affect our jobs at this meeting—“
“So a diplomatic visit. How thoughtful of you.”
Aang looks put out, finally dropping the bullshit neutral expression for something akin more to irritation. “I— it’s not just about that. I wanted to make sure you’re okay, too.”
“You never know when to switch it off, do you?”
Aang purses his lips into a thin line, keeping silent. It feels performative, almost— like an act in a play. Playing the same roles in the same play, time after time.
Zuko gets it. Aang was held responsible to be Avatar at a much younger age than he should’ve been. Zuko’s in a similar position, but at least he knows when to switch it off in his own private time.
Always the diplomatic, peacekeeping Avatar ready to negotiate and discuss the latest issue they need to tackle in the world, but in the past few years he is rarely ever Aang, the adventure seeking, fun loving boy that Zuko met years ago.
Maybe that’s just getting older. Maybe it’s unfair to expect this from a grown man nearing thirty. But having one too many work discussions in the bedroom has little to do with their gained responsibilities and more about not knowing how to separate life from work.
“I asked Katara about it. She said I did often talk about work too much, but she wasn’t particularly bothered by it—“
“First of all,” Zuko interrupts, pointing an accusing finger at Aang. “I’m not Katara. She is not me—”
“I know that—”
“Clearly you don’t. What she is willing to put up with is her business. But hasn’t it occurred to you that she may be more tolerant than I am because you’re married? Because you have a child now?”
“Do you think I took you less seriously because of that—”
“No. The issue isn’t your lack of seriousness. There are just more consequences. You two have to make it work. Otherwise it’s divorce and wondering what the hell happens to your kid—”
“So you’re saying that you can just give up—”
“It’s not giving up when there’s nothing left to give. I’ve tried. ”
Aang looks like he’s been struck— his eyes wide in shock, spine rigid. Probably would’ve hurt less if Zuko had slapped him.
“You don’t have any right to say that.”
Zuko scoffs dismissively, taking a sip of tea.
“You wanted to hide us like— like I was some kind of dirty secret. How can you tell me there was nothing for you to give when you gave me nothing to work with?”
“Nothing? I kept us from nasty rumors. I made sure our duties and obligations didn’t conflict with our relationship. That maybe we could take time off it and have time to ourselves. I made sure our titles wouldn’t be tarnished if people knew—”
“ Your title, you mean.”
“ Our titles,” Zuko hisses, nearly spitting with anger. “Just because you came from free love airbenders doesn’t mean the rest of the world gives a shit—“
“Then why not change it instead?”
“Because I can’t afford to do that!” Zuko bursts, nearly knocking his cup over. “You’re right! You’re fucking right— I care about my title— I have a nation I had to scrape from the bottom up and build again. I had to fix everything my lineage ruined. I had to make sure my reputation was clean and spotless to the Fire Nation because I can’t afford to ruin everything again over being with a man . The Avatar, of all men. But you knew this already. So don’t— don’t you dare try to blame me for that.”
It’s rare to see Aang angry. Though, maybe, Zuko has been on the other end more than most, it’s still unsettling to see. But what really gets his guts twisted, what really weighs his chest down with guilt, is the utter disappointment instead of anger.
Anger is something Zuko knows. Disappointment, too, but— Aang’s is quiet, composed. Sad, even. Defeated.
“The public is one thing, Zuko. But you wouldn’t even tell our friends . All the sneaking around, hard rejections when I was being too affectionate not even in public, but around people we know and trust. You talk about separating life from work, but you take it too far. I couldn’t really take it anymore.”
Zuko knows this. He knows this because this isn’t the first time this issue’s been discussed. This conversation has happened for what feels like the millionth time.
“Why are you here?” Zuko asks again, exasperated, suddenly drained. They’ve been over this. Why reopen a wound again?
Aang’s eyes look down on the ground, whatever residual anger and disappointment he had seems to dissipate, his shoulders sagging with it. Maybe he’s drained from it all too.
“I miss you.”
Ah, well— that’s new.
“You dump me then you miss me?”
However, Zuko will hold a grudge to his grave.
“Yes. It wasn’t— it wasn’t an easy decision—”
Aang huffs, sounding amused, the barest smile curling his lips. “Well, I never said I was infallible.”
Zuko snorts. “That’s true.”
Silence stretches between them, larger than the Great Divide, more oppressive than the humidity of the swamp next to Si Wong Desert.
It’s tiring, this cycle of arguing and silence.
Zuko rests his chin in his hand, staring at the curtains of the balcony door gently swaying from the breeze outside. What a mess. One he wanted to avoid while he spent his time here on this work obligation, hoping there would be some kind of unspoken agreement to keep things strictly professional.
Though, there is a small part of him that wished for this, as foolish as the notion is. It’s foolish looking forward to even catch a glimpse of the person who dumped him, but— well, he’s weak.
Zuko hears the chair scraping back, a few footsteps before the settling of fabric is heard, a warm hand placed on his own, giving a squeeze. Zuko shuts his eyes.
“Is this totally hopeless?”
He looks over at Aang then, kneeling on the floor. Zuko lets out a sigh, removing his hand from Aang’s to his cheek, thumb brushing against skin. Aang tilts his head, pushing into his hand.
God. Weak. He did miss this.
“No,” Zuko responds softly. “But that doesn’t mean everything is good, you know.”
“I know. How long are you here for?”
“I can stay a little longer after this weekend, but— not for too long.”
“Okay,” Aang says, resting his head in Zuko’s lap. “Maybe when this weekend is over, let’s— let's figure this out. I want to figure this out.”
Zuko hums in agreement, nodding, fingers mindlessly massaging and touching where they can— face, neck, shoulders. It’s still familiar, despite the time that has passed. Though there is one thing that’s new—
“Your beard looks stupid,” Zuko says, scratching his fingers against the hair on his face.
Aang rolls his eyes, though there’s a grin on his face. “Flattering as always, Zuko.”