Zuko stares up at the ceiling, seeing virtually nothing in the darkness, unable to rest. And for once, it's not worries around his father or his sister keeping him awake.
It's the girl curled on the couch beside him, using his chest as a pillow, her soft hair close enough for him to run his hands through, if he so desired.
Mai. She's beautiful, in a way that is so different to any other girl he's met, all gloom and darkness where most are sunshine and laughs. Yet, that makes each smile on her pale face even more special, makes the sparkle in her tawny eyes as rare and precious as a diamond. It makes him wonder what in Agni's name he has done, to deserve someone like her.
But the truth is, he doesn't deserve her. And it's not just because of his past and his mistakes and the fact that he's all torn up inside, anger and regret and fear spinning a web in his mind. It's also because he can't give her what she wants.
He's not stupid. He's heard whispers of conversations between Mai and Ty Lee, spoken when they thought he wasn't listening, the bubbly girl asking if he and Mai had done anything. He's nervous every time Mai asks for something, wondering now if there's a hidden innuendo in her words that he doesn't notice because he just doesn't think like that.
Mai isn't exactly a typical girl, but she's still a teenage girl, and he's her boyfriend, and they're spending nights together but not doing anything in that sense, and he knows, he knows, that this isn't going to be enough for her. One day, she's going to turn around and ask for something more intimate, but he can't he can't he can't.
He loves her, and he loves spending time with her, he loves how her cool compliments his fire, he loves holding her in his arms and having her fall asleep with him, he loves their gentle kisses.
He loves how she makes him feel, all warm inside, all the worries of being back in the Fire Nation disappearing from his mind when she kisses him.
But he doesn't want any more from their relationship - he can't give any more - and he knows that it's all going to fall apart when she finds out the truth.
Mai stirs beside him then, pushing herself up into a sitting position. "What's wrong?" she asks, sleepily.
Zuko quickly lights a couple of candles, then shrugs. "Nothing. I'm just... not tired."
Mai frowns. "You're lying. I could hear your heart racing, you know."
"It's nothing," he says again.
She wriggles into his lap, reaching up a hand to tilt his face towards her. "Are you angsting again?" she asks, slightly gruff.
She cuts him off with a kiss, gentle at first, then becoming more passionate. Zuko returns it, wondering at how awake she is all of a sudden, but then her hands have moved from his face down to his chest and oh, that's okay, but no they're still going down and then she's touching his hips and no no no-
Zuko gasps and pulls back with such violent force that he tumbles off the couch, rolling away from Mai, trying to hide the tremors in his body.
It doesn't work.
Mai pushes herself up, her face settling into its usual scowl, but pauses when she sees how much he's shaking. Dammit, he needs to get it together, he doesn't want this conversation he doesn't-
"Zuko? Did I... do something wrong?" Mai asks softly, crouching in front of him.
He resists the urge to hug his knees to his chest, and shakes his head. "No, it's... it's me."
Something flashes in her eyes. "Is it? Or did your father-"
"No!" he exclaims too quickly, "No, he never went that far." Ozai may have hurt him and beat him and burnt him, but the man wasn't monster enough to do that to him. Thank Agni.
Mai's still staring at him, confusion all over her face. He sighs.
I have to tell her now. I don't want to, but... She deserves an explanation.
"Mai, I... I love you," he starts, like an utter dork, "But I- I can't do, uh, what you want."
Her eyes narrow. "What do you mean?"
Agni, she's going to make him spell it out, isn't she?
"Um, sex," he says awkwardly.
Mai blinks. Once, twice, then sits back, realisation dawning on her face. Zuko braces himself for the inevitable.
"Shit," she breathes.
He frowns; that wasn't the reaction he'd expected.
Mai runs a hand through her hair, and is it his imagination, or are her cheeks flushed red?
"Shit," she says again, "Zuko, I- I wasn't trying for that. I know."
He stares. "You know...?"
"I know you're asexual. And I'm fine with that."
He keeps staring, hardly daring to believe her words. Mai rolls her eyes.
"I mean, sex just sounds boring, right? I'd much rather eat fruit tarts and cuddle you and..." she trails off, blushing harder. Heat floods into Zuko's cheeks, too, and he dims the candles slightly.
"Really?" he whispers.
"Yes? Didn't think I'd have to tell you. I knew already; Azula told me."
Of course she did. Zuko's a little miffed that he has another thing to thank his sister for. But before he can say something, Mai coughs, looking down at her hands.
"Zuko, did you think I was trying to... force sex on you?" she asks, quietly.
"No! Mai, I'd never think that! I just... I panicked. I was worried about telling you and then you touched me and I just freaked and I'm sorry-"
She interrupts him again with a kiss, much more gentle. "It's okay. I should've asked. I wasn't going to make you do anything, Zuko." Her eyes have a peculiar glint. "You're... you're beautiful, you know that? My hands just like to touch what I can see, but if it makes you uncomfortable, I won't."
"Beautiful?" he whispers, still a little dazed. Agni, he really doesn't deserve her.
"Yes," she breathes, and this time he kisses her, letting her hands run down his back, but tenses as they reach his hips.
"Not okay?" she manages to say, her lips against his. He hesitates but nods, and her hands move back up, cradling his face. She traces the outline of his scar with her gentle fingers, and he shivers, though it is a pleasant feeling.
"I love you," she murmurs, her tawny eyes meeting his golden ones.
He smiles, and her hand moves to brush his lips. "I love you too," he replies, and he really means it. For once, he believes that he has a chance with her.