The house is massive and its darkened hallways long, so honestly, Mai’s not that surprised she’s gotten lost.
Maybe part of her wanted to get lost, so at least then she wouldn’t have to stand by her mother’s side and affix a stiff mask to her face. These little get-togethers – all for your father’s career, Mai darling, and you wouldn’t want to ruin it for him, would you? – and Mai hates them. She doesn’t like how her mother makes her act. She doesn’t like how it makes her feel, all claustrophobic inside. Like she’s choking, drowning.
So she’d slipped off, alone, to the bathroom. Taken her time returning. Let herself wander, just a little. One small detour couldn’t hurt, she’d thought, when she’d darted down one hallway to stare at the elaborate art on the walls. But now, she’s lost. She can’t remember what door she’s meant to take to get back. It’s like she’s in a labyrinth, and she hopes she doesn’t find any monsters here.
She walks down a hallway. Her breath sounds incredibly loud in the silence. Nothing seems familiar here. Her footsteps take her past a door. She stops, and takes a few steps back to look at it. It’s a fancy looking door, embellished with gold inlays. She shouldn’t touch it. She definitely shouldn’t open it. This isn’t her house. It’s rude, opening doors just because they look pretty.
It’s rude, and monsters could be lurking, but it’s like what her mother says. Monsters aren’t real, and if no one ever finds out, maybe it’s not so rude. Her fingers wrap around the handle, almost as if they’ve teleported. Once from her side, now on the handle. It can’t hurt to just take a small look inside. No one should mind if she only looks.
She pushes the door open. It’s heavy and takes a little bit of effort. She peeks inside and then can’t stop herself from stepping bodily in. It’s a library, she thinks, or it’s meant to look like one. There are shelves of books set up to look like aisles. It’s fancy, as fancy as the outside of the door. Mai’s walking in fully without even noticing as she gapes at the room.
“What are you doing here?”
The accusing question makes Mai practically jump out of her skin. She scrambles, almost hitting into a bookshelf before her spine kicks in, rocketing her up solid. She stares, wide eyed, at the figure standing suddenly in front of her.
No. Just a boy. Around her age, it seems, and he’s wearing clothes that look as fancy as hers, albeit a little more creased.
Despite his accusing tone, he looks uncertain now. His hands twist slightly, down at his sides. He looks at her for a moment, his eyes heavy on her shoulders. Bites his lip. Mai resists the instinctive urge to tell him to stop. Her mother’s voice is strong in the back of her head. It’s a terrible habit to pick up, Mai.
“I’m sorry for intruding,” she forces her tongue to say instead, her voice small, but at least it’s not trembling. “I- got lost?”
The boy frowns. His head tilts. “Lost? Are you here from the party?”
Mai nods. The boy’s still looking at her. His gaze is so heavy. Commanding. Like he’s used to getting answers from everyone. It makes her stomach twist.
“I wanted to get away from the party for a bit,” Mai finds herself confessing even as she tries to keep the words in. “It’s boring.”
Her ears burn with the admission. But the boy doesn’t look like he’s going to berate her. If anything, he brightens.
“I know!” The boy exclaims. “So boring.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Mai asks curiously, getting some courage from his agreement. The boy’s cheeks flush; he mutters something under his breath she doesn’t catch. She frowns. Tentatively, she asks: “What did you say?”
“I’m avoiding my sister!” The boy bursts out with, looking embarrassed. He kicks the toe of his shoe against the carpet. “She’s so much better at behaving at these things. I just think they’re boring, so I’m hiding out here. Okay?” He sticks out his jaw, clenching it firm, and his eyes challenge Mai to… what? Mock him? How could she, considering she’d decided to sneak off for the same reasons?
“People aren’t allowed to be in here?” She repeats what he said earlier instead. The boy starts scowling.
“Yeah, well, if no one catches me, I’ll be fine.”
“Oh.” Mai’s skin starts crawling. She doesn’t break rules – she can’t. Her parents would never let her forget it if they found out, and she can’t have that. She’s clearly not as brave as the boy is. She’s going to have to brave the corridors again.
Even if she’s a little bit jealous of this boy. He doesn’t have to sit and listen to grownups chatter about boring stuff for the rest of the night, even if he’s not allowed in this room. He’s rebellious. It’s not that fair.
“I won’t tell anyone you’re in here,” Mai decides to tell him. It’s not fair, but she won’t ruin his rebellion. Not if he’s brave enough to commit it. She goes to move towards the door, dragging her feet.
“Wait.” The boy reaches out and grabs hold of Mai’s wrist. Mai stares at his hand for a split moment before moving to his face, the audacity spelt out across her face. His face goes a little bit red and he drops her wrist hastily, wiping his hand down on his trousers. Mai sniffs at that. Her sleeves are clean, thank you very much. “I mean- you said you were trying to avoid that get-together too? Maybe you could- stay? In here. If you wanted.” He shifts a little, his face still red.
Mai blinks at him. He’s inviting her to hide with him? In the library where no one’s meant to be? Her parents would be furious if they caught her, abusing their hosts’ graciousness like this. But that would rely on her parents noticing she’s gone before she manages to get back, and she knows they won’t. They never do.
Anyway. No one’s wanted to hide with her before.
“Okay then,” Mai shrugs, like her heart isn’t beating a little faster. “I’ll stay.”
The boy, at first, looks shocked. Like he hadn’t prepared for her answer to be yes. Then he looks awkward, like he’s just processed what asking her to stay might mean. His secret hiding place to escape conversation now has her in it. He won’t know yet that Mai’s an expert at keeping quiet. Mai waits and expects him to change his mind. She might be… not sad, when he does, but maybe disappointed.
“My name’s Zuko,” he blurts out after a moment. One hand scrunches into the side of his trousers. He sticks the other one out, meaning to shake her hand. After a second’s consideration, Mai shakes it delicately. His fingers are warm, like they’ve been sat out in the sun all day. He grips her hand rather clumsily as he shakes it back, the pressure all wrong if Mai listens to what her mother tells her.
Mai doesn’t mind. In fact, it probably makes her more inclined towards him.
“I’m Mai,” she replies quietly. He smiles at her.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mai.” The phrase sounds terribly practised, but paired with the earnestness of his smile, Mai thinks it’s genuine enough.
He invites her to sit down with him. He sits with his legs outstretched, taking up way more space than he needs to, his back slumped against the last few shelves. Mai sits straighter. Just a couple inches away from the book spines, keeping her spine straight out of her own volition. Her legs stay close to her chest. She’s small. Taking up barely any space. Touching barely anything. She doesn’t have his apparent confidence.
“I hate these sort of days,” the boy confides in her– Zuko, Mai repeats to herself, and it’s a nice name, really. Unusual. But nice. “When all these adults are invited over and we all have to behave ourselves? I don’t think kids should be subjected to it. It’s boring.”
Mai allows herself a very small nod in agreement. Zuko looks pleased enough with her response.
“I know, right?” He exclaims. “It’s not like they even pay much attention to us. Unless you’re my sister, I suppose, but she’s just unnatural.” His face screws up, a momentary shadow crossing his eyes. “She was born lucky.”
Mai doesn’t know what to say to that. She doesn’t have a sibling. She tries a sound of agreement this time, since the nod worked out fine last time.
But this can’t work every time, surely. She should probably find something to say, otherwise he’s going to think she’s boring like the party. Yet, as she finds out, Zuko talks a lot. Mai finds she actually doesn’t have to say much to keep the conversation going. He fills in her blanks, infers what she means from her small nods and shrugs. It’s nice. Mai doesn’t think she’s met someone that can do this for her. All her peers at school call her weird and gloomy. She doesn’t know what Zuko thinks she is, but he’s at least not acting like she’s weird. He’s acting like she’s normal.
“I bet I’ve read nearly every book in here,” he declares an hour in. Mai’s grown a little more confident. A little more at ease. She pulls a disbelieving face. Exaggerates the expression. Zuko gives her an outraged look in return. He bumps his shoulder into hers. “You don’t believe me? I have. I read all the time!”
Mai raises an eyebrow. Casts her eyes around the room, bringing attention to the sheer volume of books. There’s no way Zuko’s read all of these, especially considering he’s visiting too. He can’t know what’s in this library.
“I have,” he insists again. “I read a lot. With my mom. What about you?”
Mai lifts one shoulder into a shrug. She tries to imagine her mom still reading to her. She’d done it when Mai was a child, she can remember. Her mother sat on the edge of Mai’s bed, a book open in her hands. Her side had been warm and Mai could lean into it with ease, letting the words wash over her until her eyes had shut. But not anymore. At nearly nine, Mai’s apparently too old to get read to. Zuko looks like he’s about her age. His mom must have different thoughts.
“I like reading sometimes,” she convinces herself to whisper. Zuko brightens and proceeds to grill her about what her favourite book is. He hasn’t heard of it. Immediately, he asks her to tell him about it. Mai wishes she felt confident enough to describe it properly, but she doesn’t. Her response is quiet and stilted. It still doesn’t faze him.
He ends up telling her about all his favourite books. She’s read a couple of them. Most she hasn’t. By the end of his conversation, Mai feels like she’s read all of them.
In the end, all good things come to an end. They lose track of the time.
Zuko’s in the middle of telling her an impassioned story about his uncle and the man’s love of tea that Mai doesn’t quite understand when a warm voice cuts across the room. “Zuko? Are you in here, baby?”
“Mom!” Zuko scrambles to his feet, dusting off his trousers. He looks guilty. Mai climbs to her feet too, but steps unconsciously behind Zuko when the woman comes into view, stepping from behind a shelf. Mai’s hands are trembling. She’s going to get in so much trouble with her parents.
The woman smiles when she spots them. She, at least, doesn’t look mad – just a little worried maybe. Her eyes alight upon Mai; Mai tries not to shrink any further behind Zuko. It’s not like he can protect her or something.
“Zuko, I told you not to come in here during the party,” the woman sighs, shaking her head. She still doesn’t seem mad. Maybe a little exasperated instead. “And you brought a friend?”
“Oh, yeah.” Zuko seems to remember Mai now. He glances over his shoulder at her, brows furrowing when he notices how she’s standing pretty much behind him. His hand grabs at her wrist, like before. Mai doesn’t resist when he tugs her out of his shadow, even if she might want to. “This is Mai. She’s bored of the party too.”
Mai’s face flushes pink in embarrassment. She can’t blame him for speaking honestly, but did he have to?
“Mai. Ukano’s and Michi’s daughter, yes?” The woman looks kindly at Mai. Her eyes look incredibly like Zuko’s. Mai nods, small and ashamed. But the woman’s face stays kind. In fact, it crinkles into a small laugh. “I would be offended – after all, I planned it – but I can’t say I blame you two,” the woman says, reaching out to ruffle Zuko’s hair. Mai freezes. This woman’s one of the hosts? Her mother’s really going to get mad. Her mother told her not to do anything that could reflect badly on their family, and here she is, sitting around all night in one of the off-bounds rooms. “It is pretty boring for kids, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I said at the start of this thing,” Zuko complains, batting his mother’s hand away with some muttered comment about her messing up his ponytail. “But now you agree?”
“You should still listen to me, Zuko,” the woman says. “Your sister’s not bored, is she?”
Zuko scowls. He mutters something under his breath, quiet enough that the woman doesn’t hear but Mai does. Something about his sister always being perfect.
It’s the perfect time for Mai to apologise. So she does.
“I’m sorry for coming in here,” she says, her voice quiet and barely audible. Her free hand, the one not captive in Zuko’s, twists slightly into her skirt.
The woman, Zuko’s mother, laughs again. It’s a nice soft sound and sort of reminds Mai of a harp. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” she says. “I don’t mind.”
Mai looks at her, a little dubious. The woman doesn’t comment on it.
“We should all get back to the party now,” she says. “Otherwise your parents are going to get worried!"
On the way to the door, Zuko’s hand tugs on her sleeve. Mai glances at him.
“Don’t worry about being in the library,” he whispers to her. “My mom’s not mad at all.”
Mai believes him. Maybe she shouldn’t, because her mother’s always telling her that there’s a way to behave in company (and it always sounds like a complicated way of saying we lie) but Zuko doesn’t look like he’s lying. Zuko doesn’t look like he could lie.
“Did you two have fun then?” The woman asks as she leads them out of the room. Mai is silent. Zuko nods enthusiastically. His fingers are still twisted into her sleeve.
“Mai doesn’t think I’ve read most of those books,” he announces, and the rest of the conversation to the rest of the party is filled with that.
Mai walks partially in Zuko’s shadow again. She likes the sound of his voice.
For a moment, Mai thinks maybe everything will be fine. She’s had a nice evening, sitting with Zuko. Zuko’s mother doesn’t seem mad to find them where they weren’t meant to be. Maybe her parents won’t have noticed she’d gone yet, and she can just slip away with them.
But Mai’s mother must have some sort of second sense when it comes to influential people, or maybe it’s just because she’s been wanting to talk to one of the hosts alone all day so she’s actively looking, because Mai is not granted leniency. The moment they enter the room again, where everyone is gathering up their things to go, Mai hears her name.
“Mai!” Her mother exclaims, hurrying over. She snatches Mai’s arm up, pulling Mai towards her. “I hope she wasn’t creating any bother.” These words aren’t even directed at Mai, but straight at Zuko’s mother. That’s just how unimportant Mai is in the face of status.
Zuko’s mother laughs again, an easy smile spreading over her face.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Zuko’s mother smiles. “Your daughter – Mai? – was just keeping my son company in the library. Our get-togethers are just so boring for children, aren’t they?”
Mai’s mother’s hand digs uncomfortably into Mai’s shoulder. “Mai was with your son?” It’s disguised, but Mai can hear the sudden interest awoken. Like blood in shark invested waters, her mother is never going to hesitate when it comes to connections. “Oh, that’s so sweet! I bet they really clicked.”
Mai’s cheeks are on fire. She hates this voice of her mother’s. She hates it more now it’s being directed at Zuko. Zuko, who was actually nice to talk with. Zuko, who’s probably going to think her some sort of predator, a social-climbing obsessed freak. It’s a sour taste in Mai’s mouth. Why can’t her mother just not for once?
“They had fun, I believe,” Zuko’s mother smiles again. Both her hands are on Zuko’s shoulders now, pressing his back against her legs. Her hands look soft and gentle on Zuko, comforting instead of heavy. “Zuko was telling me all about it on the walk over here.”
Zuko’s cheeks are now the ones burning. He scowls at the floor, fidgeting in his mother’s arms.
“Perhaps Mai could come around to play again some time?” Mai’s mother suggests. Far too eagerly, Mai thinks, bordering on desperate. A yawning pit opens up in Mai’s stomach, making her feel sick. Why does her mother always have to do this?
“Would you like that, Zuko?” Zuko’s mother asks. Mai knows what expression will be on her mother’s face. Something suppressed, yet sour. Her mother isn’t the type to rely on what children want. She thinks the whims of children are silly to rely on.
“Um,” Zuko says. Mai’s looking at the floor, so she can see his feet shuffle awkwardly. Mai’s mother’s nails dig into her arm. “Maybe?” He sounds uncertain.
Mai swallows. She thinks she might hate her mother in this moment.
“We’ll have to arrange something!” Mai’s mother prattles on, her words blending into one horrible noise in the background. All Mai can think about are the moments she had in the library, when it was just her and Zuko and none of this expectation hanging over them. It was nice, in that moment, being outside of what her parents want.
But then. Her mother usually ruins everything.
On the arranged playdate, her mother dresses Mai in her best dress and ties her hair up firmly into twin buns with covers instead of ribbons and lists off all the things Mai should do. Be perfectly nice. Be polite. Don’t make any fusses. If this goes well, Mai, just think of all the opportunities!
Mai doesn’t want to think of the opportunities. She just wanted to have a friend. A nice moment of conversation where, for once, she wouldn’t be seen as dull. But that’s probably all gone now.
She says nothing to her mother. There’s no point anyway.
She is the picture of silence and a perfect daughter on the drive over. Zuko’s mother opens the front door before they even get there. Mai thinks that’s a little strange, that Zuko’s mother’s the one opening the door. She knows they have at least on staff member who could do it instead.
“Hello again, Mai!” Zuko’s mother smiles brightly at her, bending slightly at the waist to look Mai in the eye. Mai struggles to hold her gaze. “That’s a very pretty dress you’re wearing.”
Mai thinks Zuko’s mom looks really, really pretty. And nice. Mai almost feels good about the dress, when it’s Zuko’s mom complimenting her.
“Isn’t it?” Mai’s mother gushes from behind her. “We thought Mai should look her best!” Mai’s mother laughs. It’s a horrible fake sound that fools everyone. Zuko’s mother chuckles. It sounds much nicer.
“Well, let me take Mai now,” Zuko’s mother says, and one of her soft hands is reaching for Mai. It grasps her shoulder, light and warm instead of the sharpness of her own mother’s hand. “I’m sure she’ll have lots of fun.”
“Goodbye, Mai dear!” Her mother says, sickeningly sweet. Her eyes repeat the same lessons as earlier. Be nice. Polite. Think of the opportunities.
The door shuts. Mai lets out a small breath.
Zuko’s mother walks her through to the gardens, where apparently Zuko will be. If he hasn’t already moved, Zuko’s mother laughs. He’s always sneaking around here. The woman keeps trying to make conversation with Mai on the way. But Mai doesn’t talk much, and when she does it’s only to be polite. She feels awkward and embarrassed. Zuko’s mother doesn’t seem to mind though. Maybe that’s where Zuko got it from.
Mai can’t help but gasp when she sees the gardens. They’re beautiful. The grass is a perfect shade of green. There’s trees and bright scatterings of flowers and even a pond. Zuko’s mother laughs lightly at Mai’s face.
“It’s very pretty here, isn’t it?” She says and Mai nods politely. Very pretty doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s like some sort of fairy-tale garden, or one of the fancy cultivated ones at parks or something.
“Zuko!” The woman calls, her hands on her hips. “Mai’s here.”
Mai… doesn’t see Zuko. She glances about, and Zuko’s mother does too.
Then, there’s a rustle and the woman sighs, turning her eyes to one of the nearby trees. Mai looks too, in confusion, and her eyes widen when Zuko drops out of the leaves. It’s a controlled drop, clearly something he’s done a hundred times over. There’s a leaf and one small twig stuck in his hair. Mai’s mother would have a fit if Mai did anything like that in nice clothes. Zuko’s mother just seems exasperated.
She doesn’t say anything though and just gently pushes Mai forward a step. Mai almost stumbles. Almost.
“Now,” Zuko’s mom says, “you two behave.”
Zuko shoots his mother a look. It’s exasperated, but still fond.
Zuko’s mom leaves. Mai stares at the ground. He coughs lightly. It’s painfully awkward. Mai doesn’t fidget – she’s been taught better than that – but she wants to.
But since she liked him back in the library, she’ll take the bullet. She takes a small breath. Glances up at him for a moment, and then decides it’ll be easier if she’s looking at the floor.
“We don’t have to hang out,” Mai murmurs. “Just tell your mom you don’t want to.”
Zuko’s mom looks nice enough that she’ll probably listen. Not like Mai’s mom.
“Do you not want to hang out?” Zuko says. He sounds almost… reproachful? Mai can’t stop herself from looking up at him, briefly but long enough to see his expression. His brows are furrowed. The corners of his mouth turn down.
“I…” Mai pauses. Her mother would tell her it’s rude. But... “I thought maybe you didn’t want to?” Mai shifts, chancing another look up at him from under her lashes. Zuko gives her a wide eyed stare in return.
“Why would you think that?”
“Because… my mother suggested it?” She’s starting to feel embarrassed. “And… you didn’t seem like you wanted to?”
He’s staring at her.
“I wanted to. I like you, Mai,” Zuko says earnestly, like it’s nothing. Like true honesty is nothing to him. Mai feels her cheeks heating up.
No-one’s ever said they liked her before. None of the children her mother’s arranged playdates with before. They’ve all called her gloomy. Boring.
“I thought maybe you wouldn’t want to hang out with me,” he explains. “Because I’m not- I’m not that cool.”
It’s Mai’s turn to stare. Not cool? He snuck and hid at a party, against orders. Climbs trees, apparently. And he’s got lots of cool stories.
“Everyone likes my sister better,” Zuko continues. “She’s got loads of friends. They all love her.” He sounds bitter for a startling moment, glaring off into the distance before he remembers himself. “But- you’re cool. You didn’t seem to mind me talking a lot, the other night?” He rubs at the back of his neck. “I know I can be annoying, but-”
“I didn’t think you were annoying,” Mai interrupts. She can’t hold the words back. Zuko blinks at her, his mouth hanging slightly open.
“…Really?” He asks finally. His voice sounds quieter. Fragile. Mai twists her hands behind her back.
There’s another awkward moment. It’s not as painful as the first, but Mai still has no idea how to break it. He’s looking at her as if it’s the first time he’s ever seeing her, all wide eyed with wonder. It’s what she said, she supposes, though she’s not too sure how anyone could find him annoying.
Luckily, Mai doesn’t have to break the moment. Zuko manages to come up with something after a handful of seconds.
“Do you want to see the duck pond?” He blurts out.
Mai does, in fact, want to see the duck pond. He’d told her about it last time and made it sound like fun. And after she’d glimpsed it on her way in… her interest has only grown. So she nods, not bothering to pretend she’s not excited like her mother would tell her too, and his face brightens.
He links his arm through hers like she’s some sort of lady, pulling her into a walk to the pond. After the smallest hesitation, Mai curls her hand around his arm.
His cheeks redden a little even as he beams at her. Mai’s mouth curls into a small smile in return. She doesn’t think she minds that she’s blushing too.
Mai’s never had a friend like Zuko before – or maybe a friend at all – but after only a month, Mai can’t quite remember life before Zuko.
It delights her mother to no end. When her parents think Mai’s not listening, they gush about the future and he’s such a good boy, don’t you think and maybe he’ll marry our Mai, if they’re childhood friends, and just think of what that could do!
Mai doesn’t like that sort of talk. Zuko’s her friend, not some opportunity. There’s no point in telling her mother that however. Her mother doesn’t listen.
It doesn’t matter though. Zuko listens to her.
He teaches her how to climb the trees in his garden, and doesn’t laugh once when she lets out a few breathless squeaks. She, in turn, teaches him to throw knives into the tree in her garden. Honestly, she’s not meant to take out the knife set her uncle bought her for her last birthday – it’s far too inappropriate of a gift, her mother had said, but she’d let Mai hold onto them anyway, and Zuko likes knives and swords. He’s got a really nice ornamental one from his uncle he lets her hold if she wants to. Mai’s never had anyone to share interests with before, and it’s obvious he hasn’t either.
She likes it. She likes him. And, best of all, he likes her.
Mai meets his sister a couple of times, and decides she doesn’t much like Azula. There’s something scary about her sharp edges. When she tells Zuko this, he looks vindicated.
“My mom tells me it’s silly to be scared of her,” he confides when they’re in the library, a safe space his sister doesn’t seem to bother them in. They’re lying on their stomachs. Mai’s skirt is definitely going to get creased. Her mother will not like it, or the dirt she got from climbing trees. “But she’s really, really scary. She burnt the head of this doll that our uncle sent her, you know? Plunged it right into the fireplace.”
Mai shivers. In sympathy, but he seems to think she’s cold. He shifts closer to her, his side flush with hers as to keep her warm.
Her cheeks are red the rest of the day, and it’s not because she’s overheating.
Zuko’s mom dies.
Presumably. There’s no funeral, which confuses Mai. When someone dies, there’s always a funeral, right? But Zuko looks and acts completely devastated, and his eyes are all red and sore when her parents let her come around, so she doesn’t ask. She just hugs him and he clings to her like a dying man, like he thinks he’ll never get a hug again.
When Mai understands more about Zuko’s father, a man she’s rarely seen so far, she realises why he’s hugging her like that.
So she hugs him more. Even if she’s awkward and a little uncomfortable.
Mai’s not the most comfortable with physical affection. Her mother rarely touches her. She doesn’t think her father’s ever hugged her. But Zuko likes physical affection and she likes it when it’s with him.
She likes how she can feel his heartbeat against her chest when she hugs him. How warm his hand is when she holds it. The careful softness when he bumps his shoulder against hers. She starts to depend on it. Her house feels cold and claustrophobic, and his feels large and oppressive, but he’s always warm with her and she’s somehow soft with him.
It might be by accident, or some unspoken agreement, but they start holding hands whenever they can. Under the table when they’re having meals around each other’s houses. When they’re sitting under a tree or reading a book together. It’s an easier way of holding each other than the hugs, which make his sister laugh and her mother watch them too intently.
They come up with a system. Squeezes. An easier way of speaking. If his fingers curl around hers that way, he’s happy. If her fingers crush his, she wants to get out of whatever situation they’re in.
He always seems to like it when she touches him. She’s probably the only one who does now. His mother is gone. His uncle doesn’t visit often at all.
She likes it when he holds her hand too. He’s also the only one who touches her.
She doesn’t speak to him for nearly three days after he yells at her for the first time. He’s frustrated, not at her but with his father who doesn’t look at him like he does his sister, but it’s no excuse, and Mai tells him that before she marches off. She thinks maybe he’ll think she’s just being dramatic, but it becomes all too clear when she doesn’t turn up for her usual time with him.
Her mother doesn’t understand but Mai’s making a point. She’s treated a way by her parents. She won’t have her best friend doing it too.
He comes around after a while or so. Apologises, his expression honestly contrite and his hands twisted into the sides of his shirt. Mai waits to see if he understands exactly why she’s mad – he hadn’t before, when she’d tried to tell him that yelling wasn’t nice and she’s not good at explaining herself but that wasn’t the problem – and she thinks he does this time. I wasn’t angry at you, he tells her, but myself. But I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.
They’re better after that.
Things feel different between them sometimes. She catches him looking at her, and when she does he looks away flushing red. She can still feel his gaze, weighted and a little shy, resting on the back of her shoulders when he thinks she’s not looking. When she asks him to adjust a necklace she’s wearing – at her mother’s insistence, but it’s fastened much too tight for Mai’s liking – his cheeks flare and his fingers stumble when they touch the back of her neck.
She’s started looking at him differently too. She’s noticed things. How nice his face looks. How dry her mouth gets. How long she stares at him when she knows he’s not looking. When they hold hands, her heart’s taken to beating too fast against her ribcage.
She wonders if he’s feeling everything she is. He looks at her. Blushes like she does. But she doesn’t know.
(He’s always blushed easily).
And then, the summer right before he turns thirteen, he gives her a fire lily.
Her mother’s taken to trying to interfere in what Mai wears around to Zuko’s. You should look your best, Mai, her mother says as she presses fancy dresses and pretty ribbons onto Mai, and the way her mother’s eyes light up makes her feel a little sick. They’re kids, and her mother needs to stop. She gets out of it most days – apparently a well-timed off-hand comment about how Zuko prefers a friend who can actually move makes her mother forgo the dresses – but today is not one of those days. Mai pulls on the sides of her skirts, feeling horrible awkward.
Her mother smiles and tells her she looks very pretty.
It’s made worse by this. She doesn’t quite know if she wants Zuko to notice or not.
When she gets to Zuko’s house, she’s shown to the garden by their butler. Zuko’s already there. Not in a tree, but shifting side to side by the duck pond. Mai narrows her eyes. She knows his expressions well enough by now. He’s hiding something. Literally, she realises in the next moment. There’s something behind his back.
When he sees her, he almost drops it. Whatever it is. His face twitches through a couple more expressions: panic, determination, an attempt at a greeting smile that he doesn’t quite pull off thanks to the first emotion. Mai walks over, hands linked behind her back and waits.
She doesn’t ask what he’s holding. She just waits. Patiently. He’ll get there eventually, and she knows he doesn’t like getting hurried. She’s probably the last person who’s patient with him now.
The sun warms the back of her neck. A breeze sways through the grass. Her skirts settle against her legs. Finally-
“Here,” he says abruptly, and shoved the thing behind his back at her. Mai blinks, startled at first, and then surprised. He’s holding out a… flower? A fire lily, she realises in the next beat.
“…what’s this?” She asks slowly. His cheeks flare as bright as the flower’s petals.
“It’s a fire lily.”
“I know. But…” Mai doesn’t bite her lip. Too well trained as usual. But not trained enough to stop herself from asking. “Why?”
Why indeed. There’s a commonly told reason to gifting fire lilies. People give them to the person they think is beautiful, since the fire lily, destined to last only a few weeks in nature, is said to be the most beautiful of all the flowers.
And he’s giving her one.
“I thought you might like it.” Zuko mumbles. He’s not looking her in the eye. He looks so incredibly awkward. It’s sweet, endearing.
Mai doesn’t like gifts much. Not pointless, pretty ones. That’s her parents’ thing, foisting useless, generic things on her to buy her good behaviour. Gifts confuse her, other than the useful few her uncle’s given her. A flower is pretty much the definition of useless.
But Zuko gave her this flower. And he’s flushing so red.
Mai gazes at it. The delicate soft petals. The vibrant colour. The meaning.
Softly, she smiles. A slight curve of her lips.
“Thank you,” she says quietly.
She doesn’t like gifts much. But she likes this one.
When she gets home, she calls her aunt. Aunt Mura’s a florist, the perfect person to help her.
“Mai, dear!” Aunt Mura answers. “What can I do for you?”
Mai gazes at the flower and almost smiles again.
“How would I preserve a flower?”
She presses it down flat under several of her heaviest books, like her aunt instructed, and when it’s completely flat and dried out, she slips it into a small photo frame so it’ll be safe. Then she slides that into the box her uncle got her for things like this. It has a lock. Mai keeps the key with her, so her parents can’t go through it.
Before she shuts and locks the box, Mai looks at the flower again.
She smiles again. A small secretive sort of smile that’s as warm as the feeling in her chest. Mai’s never felt anything like this. It’s wonderful.
They start spending a lot of their time outside of their houses now.
Zuko prefers to avoid his father and avoid Mai’s questioning looks at the intense fervour in which he takes to doing the things his father wants. And Mai’s always down to avoid her parents.
The intensity in which Zuko wants to please his father is… frightening, to say the least. He’s always had a bit of a one track mind. It’s never unnerved her as much before.
Sometimes she finds herself wishing she could say something. Something that would convince him that if he’s putting this much work into trying to make his father happy, then clearly there’s something wrong there.
But he wouldn’t understand. Honestly, she’s not too sure she understands. After all, she acts a certain way to make her parents happy. Just because his way is unnerving doesn’t mean it has to be wrong.
He’s strangely quiet one day. He takes his usual seat on the bench that they’ve unofficially claimed as theirs at the local park and he barely greets her, staring at the floor and making noncommittal murmurs instead of words. Mai tries for a few minutes – maybe he’s just in a funk. His father’s on that business trip this week. Maybe that’s what’s up. But even she can only try for so long.
“Zuko,” Mai says. She wants to ask if anything’s wrong. She can’t make her mouth form such an open question off the bat. Even with him, she struggles. Especially as she gets older, and her parents get stricter with their demands. She knows he minds, but he tries not to let it. He knows she can’t help it, even if he doesn’t always quite understand.
He glances at her, his eyes conflicted, tentative. One hand clutches to the edge of the bench, his fingers curled around too tight. Mai notices – she always notices – and her eyebrows pull in. This doesn’t feel like a good thing. This feels like something bad is going to happen.
So Mai reaches over and squeezes his hand. His hand is warm. Hers is cool. It’s their special thing. Even now, as conflicted as he clearly is, his fingers slowly curl around hers, squeezing her back.
Still, he takes a while to answer her unspoken question. A long while, scuffing his shoe into the dirt, and her heart pounds anxiously the whole time. She doesn’t pressure him though. He’ll tell her eventually. He always does.
And, as predicted, a couple of minutes later: “Do you remember the other day, when I told you I was going to sneak into my father’s office, to look over his business files, while he’s on his business trip?”
Mai nods. She remembers. She remembers thinking it could be a terrible idea. Pointless, she’d thought: what would Zuko even do with the information? But he’d said it was his best chance at understanding how the business worked, and he had to, if he was going to make his father proud. If only he could read some of the stuff, bring it up vaguely in conversation, prove to his father he was worthy, then-
At least, Mai had thought, he’d done it when Ozai was away.
“Well…” he bites the inside of his cheek, trailing off again. “I looked at these numbers, for employee pays? And it, uh. I don’t think it-it-”
Mai kicks her foot gently against his ankle. Reassuringly. You can tell me, it’s meant to say.
“The numbers don’t make sense!” He blurts out, looking up at her now. “These people are doing the most dangerous job – something to do with removal of a chemical or something? – and they’re barely getting paid anything. It’s not right. Someone’s clearly just messed up somewhere and is treating these people like garbage!”
Zuko sounds so passionate about it. Mai doesn’t really know what’s so important about it – maybe she just doesn’t understand, but isn’t that just the thing with jobs? Sometimes some people don’t get paid as much? But if Zuko’s so worked up about it, it has to mean something.
“Maybe you’re not understanding it properly?” Mai suggests. It’s a silly suggestion, really. Zuko’s not bad when it comes to numbers. He might have been, once, but not since his father started demanding excellence in all areas of study.
He shakes his head vehemently. “I double-checked it. They’re getting paid so much less than they should, with the risks and all. I don’t think they’ve even got proper safety precautions.”
“Businesses have dark sides.” But Mai’s uncertain.
“I’m going to tell my father about it,” Zuko says assuredly. “He’ll know what to do.”
“It’s his business though,” Mai can’t stop herself from pointing out. “And you found this information from his office? What if he already knows?”
Zuko shakes his head again. “It was buried under a lot of stuff, and he can’t know. He’s a good leader. He’d never treat his employees like that. One of his other managers must be sneaking it past him or something.
“He’ll be back tomorrow. I’ll talk to him then. He’ll- he’ll fix it.” Zuko looks so determined, Mai can’t bring herself to question him any longer. Anyway. He’s probably right. He knows his father better than she does, after all – and just because his father is questionable when it comes to his children doesn’t mean he’s willingly cruel to his employees. Mai’s father isn’t, and he’s not the best father to Mai.
Maybe then his father will see how good Zuko is, and then Zuko will be happy, and that’ll make Mai happy.
She’s still nervous for him though.
“Zuko,” she says, and stops. She doesn’t know what she was going to say anyway. Don’t tell him? Why, just because Mai’s a little nervous? She knows Zuko well enough that nothing will stop him. Zuko looks at her with questioning eyes. His fingers tighten around hers.
“Don’t worry,” he says lowly, like he knows exactly what she’s thinking, “I won’t do anything stupid. I promise.”
He can’t promise her that. He can’t.
Mai’s learnt this long ago. Kids can promise all they want, but it’s the adults that control everything. Adults who can change to definition of stupid at a whim. Zuko, though, is the type that doesn’t quite understand that yet.
She wants to give him something to keep him on track. Something that would guarantee he’d come back to her. Guarantee he’d keep his promise, as impossible as that could be.
She thinks about what all the girls in his favourite books do when their boys are about to go face injustice. Thinks about a fire lily, pressed and hidden underneath her bed.
She leans in. Her veins feel full of some sort of sudden liquid courage and she doesn’t let herself think too much about what she’s doing. She kisses his cheek quickly, fleetingly. So brief that it could have almost been imagined. Her cheeks burns. Her mouth does too. He stares at her, surprised. Then his lips quirk. Slowly, warmly, slightly. His hand raises, fingertips brushing the spot her lips touched.
“I promise,” he repeats. Quietly. Certain. Awed.
She squeezes his hand. And hopes.
She doesn’t see or hear from Zuko the next day. Or the day after that.
Her parents keep her at home when she tries to go to their usual meeting spot at the park. When she asks why, her mother’s only response is a curt stop asking.
All Mai knows is something bad must have happened with Zuko.
He promised, a part of her says. He promised, he promised but he can’t control his father and something has happened and no one will tell her what.
She wants to scream. She wants to scream, and she doesn’t.
Instead she asks, politely, every day. She’s told that Zuko’s probably just busy, and boys need their space, Mai, but it’s not a real answer and her mother knows it. She tries not to let her feelings slip through – her mother won’t respond to her if she’s emotional, won’t answer if she yells – but after only a week of her asking, of her chest feeling like it’s going to implode-
Her parents inform her that they’re moving.
To a whole new continent. Her mother tells her it’s a fantastic opportunity for her father, for their family. And Mai breaks her mother’s rules. She protests.
“But what about Zuko? I don’t want to-”
Her mother’s face spasms. A cold hand digs into Mai’s arm, nails pricking into her skin. Her mouth hangs open, and tears almost threaten her eyes. Her mother’s never quite looked at her like that.
“Quiet, girl!” Her mother snaps, and then tells Mai she shouldn’t think about Zuko anymore. Things change, apparently, and if she was a proper daughter she would just be quiet and grateful.
Mai wants to protest again.
She can’t though. Not with the look in her mother’s eye, the way that her father looks at her later on. They tell her she can make as many new friends as she wants in their new city. They tell her she’ll get a nice big room in their new house. She can have anything she wants to decorate it, as long as she just behaves.
She can have anything, it seems, but Zuko.
Mai never hears from Zuko again.
She waits. Fruitlessly. Hopelessly. People, especially kids, can’t keep their promises. He was too good for her; of course he’s gone. She wanted him and Mai doesn’t get to have what she wants.
It feels like her insides are being carved out from the inside. Like one of her knives, swallowed and slicing her up. The pain’s unbearable. Her whole heart hurts in a way she didn’t know was possible. At night, under her covers, she cries so hard she’s almost sick, because no one tells her anything and Zuko’s gone and now she’s in some other country lost forever.
Eventually, she pushes all her feelings down into a small box in the back of her head. Compresses it all like she does with everything else. Places on a well-designed mask that feels more hollow than her others.
And moves on.
(Even still. She keeps the pressed fire lily. Sometimes, she looks at it. Maybe sometimes she wants to cry. But that’s a secret between herself and the darkness, and the darkness never gives up her secrets).
Mai moves in with her aunt Mura. It’s less of a choice and more of something that just happens. She comes to visits her aunt over the winter break. By the time summer comes around, Mai’s enrolled to start at the local university in the autumn and she’s got a part time job at her aunt’s flower shop, and she doesn’t ever have to go and live with her parents again if she doesn’t want to.
It’s all going passably, really. Mai doesn’t hate the flower shop. She thinks she might like it, at least a little. Even with the customers – or in particular, one customer.
“Flower girl!” Sokka crows delightedly when he strolls into her shop. His hair, pulled up in a style Mai will never stop seeing as ridiculous, is sopping wet today. Mai raises one eyebrow.
“Did you not see the weather report?” She asks him as he trudges over to the counter, stopping briefly to admire a new batch of pink roses. After sniffing one appreciatively, Sokka looks to grins at her.
“I did, but apparently my sister stole my umbrella from my bag when she read the weather report and didn’t tell me, so…” He gestures down at himself. “I’m soaked. But! A little rain can’t stop me from my mission.”
“I think your girlfriend’s had enough flowers,” Mai comments dryly, but still pulls out an order form. Sokka has been in here at least twice a week for a month now. He’d stumbled in here first near closing, begging her to help him. She’d not listened to most of what he’d said but apparently he’d thought she was the best just because she recommended a few flowers that his girlfriend ended up loving. It’s her job, but he’d taken it to mean they should be friends. So far, she hasn’t been able to get rid of him. Honestly, maybe she doesn’t want to. He’s fun. His jokes aren’t that terrible. And it’s better than the usual clientele.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Mai!” Sokka waggles his finger. “My Suki can never get enough flowers. She loves everything I give her.”
Mai thinks this Suki has to be deaf, to enjoy the amount Sokka talks.
“Anyway. These flowers aren’t for Suki today. They’re for my sister! It’s her birthday this weekend.”
Mai pulls out an order form and a pen.
“You know, we’re having a party,” Sokka says casually and Mai’s spine stiffens. This is not the first time he’s tried this. To invite her to a party, so they can be friends. He seems to be of the opinion that she has none and it’s his job to help her. She’s of the opinion that he needs to stop bugging her. She doesn’t like parties. They’re loud, noisy, she usually knows no one and she ends up hiding alone until she can leave, and it just leaves a sour taste in her mouth.
“How nice,” Mai says flatly. “What flowers would your sister like in her arrangement?”
“It’s just us and some friends. Nothing too big,” Sokka continues like he didn’t hear her. Mai knows he did; she also knows he’s lying. Nothing too big? He says that about all his parties and the pictures he shows her are always so much bigger. It got out of hand or I had more friends than I expected.
No. Mai’s had enough of social functions.
“Pink tulips are a classic choice for a sister,” she says flatly. Sokka pouts at her.
“Come on, Mai!” He whines. “Just one party. You can meet all my friends – you can meet Suki! Then we can all hang out and be happy.”
“Who says I’m not happy?”
Sokka groans. “You are exactly like my best friend! He did this crap all the time in school. Excuse after excuse! But he came along eventually and now he’s friends with all my friends, and you can be too!”
Mai’s had enough. She has to put her foot down. As a rule, she still doesn’t like showing too much emotion – old habits die hard – but she’ll make a little exception here.
“I’m not going to your party, Sokka. It’s your sister’s birthday; you shouldn’t be inviting strangers.” Agni knows how much Mai’s hated that over the years. She’s only had one birthday she liked, and that was here with her aunt. Only those two, and a small bundle of presents from her uncle. The perfect birthday, really.
“She’ll invite strangers! Or at least her boyfriend will. He makes friends with everyone.” Sokka sticks out his tongue. “Please, Mai. I want you to have some fun. You’re new in town still; you don’t know anyone.”
Mai… can’t argue with that. It still doesn’t mean she’s going to agree.
“One party,” Sokka repeats. He’s said it too often. Aunt Mura’s overheard and come over.
“A party?” Aunt Mura says, and that’s when Mai know she’s doomed. If her mother pounced for social elevation, then Aunt Mura pounces on things to make Mai’s life more enjoyable. By her standards, of course.
Sokka grins victoriously.
“This is going to be great!”
It is not, indeed, great.
It is bigger than Sokka said, as usual. The decorations are tacky and the balloons smell cheap, labelled with peeling white text. The music pounds on bass-boosted speakers, giving her a headache. She knows only one person, Sokka, and everyone else either doesn’t notice her or gives her strange looks instead.
Mai hates the whole thing on principle. Her face goes terribly flat. She probably looks rude. Unlikable. It’s probably for the best. Maybe she’ll stop getting bothered after this.
Still. She’s a little disappointed. It’s like he said. She doesn’t know anyone in this city. She won’t be changing that now.
Sokka still tries to introduce her to his friends, even when he gives her a look at her expression. Katara, the sister whose party this is. Aang, a bubbly guy who immediately tries to show her some sort of marble trick. His girlfriend, Suki, who tells her she loves all the flower arrangements Mai’s made. His last two friends don’t manage to appear before Mai makes her excuses and sneaks off.
The conversation had started moving on, and Mai had stuck out like some sore thumb. She’d felt- not great. She’d not liked feeling like that.
She heads for the hallway, hoping for some quiet. The lights are mostly off. It’s to be expected. She doesn’t know where she’s going. The bathroom, maybe? She can check her phone there. See if Aunt Mura will come pick her up already.
“Oh!” She lets out the small, startled noise as she rams straight into someone. Embarrassment tries to colour her cheeks; irritation takes over. “Watch where you’re going!”
“Sorry,” the person says immediately, without hesitation. They step back, out of her range. “I wasn’t- wait. You were the one that hit into me.”
“Whatever,” Mai scowls. She goes to push by the person – who cares who ran into who, she should have never come, this party’s as boring as the ones in her childhood – and glances up, just out of curiosity.
And then stops.
This is not happening.
The guy’s staring back at her too. She wonders, absentmindedly in the back of her head, which one of them will crack first.
As it turns out, it’s both of them.
“Zuko?” Mai’s voice is a startling rasp, a barely hoping shock. She’s barely aware it’s her speaking.
“Mai?” His is incredulous. Disbelieving.
For a moment, they just stare. Endlessly. Like they’re drowning in each other’s gaze and are perfectly happy to as well.
Mai feels like she’s imagining things. Or slipped into some sort of parallel universe. Because this- this is not happening. There’s no way it’s happening.
It’s happening. She’d know his eyes anywhere.
Someone pushes past them with a mumbled apology. It jerks them both from their stupor.
He grabs her by the wrist. Pulls her to a room where the noise isn’t as prevalent, as demanding. Perhaps Mai shouldn’t be following a guy into what looks like a bedroom. Parties and guys and bedrooms – she knows what her neighbour Ty Lee would be saying here, with a wink and a smirk too.
Mai feels strangely numb. She looks at the fingers gently curled around her wrist. Remembers a smaller hand doing the same once. At a party too.
She hadn’t wanted to be at that party until she’d met him.
When they get into the bedroom – one look around tells her this is probably Sokka’s – Zuko drops her hand. He also leaves the door slightly ajar. For her peace of mind or his?
He turns to her. Looks. Waits. Maybe he’s waiting for her to talk first. Maybe he’s gathering his thoughts. Mai doesn’t think she can speak right now. So she looks back. Reacquaints herself with her once best friend.
He’s taller. She supposes that should be obvious, but in the moments she’s imagined him since, she’s never seen him as looking down at her. They were always in the same height range. Her eyes level with his. He always claimed he’d grow bigger than her one day. She’d laughed. But he was right, apparently.
His eyes are familiar. Warm and open. Mai’s spent hours staring at these eyes, with small sneaked looks and longer ones too. She knows them – even with one looking permanently narrowed now. By the new part of his face. The very large burn scar.
It’s shocking. Mai’s had enough training, thanks to her mother, that she can just about contain the gasp that presses against the other side of her lips. She can’t stop her eyes from flickering over it though. He notices. Frowns briefly, then his expression smooths out to expectant. Like he’s used to people staring at it by now.
That thought makes her feel… something. A twinge, deep in her stomach. She knows enough about his life before he disappeared. Enough to feel unsettled. She focuses back on his eyes. He’s looking her over. Lingering. She wonders if he recognises her eyes as well as she does his. She shifts a little when his eyes linger a little too long. It’s always felt heavy, his gaze, but even more so now.
She wants to tell him she missed him. Desperately, like she’s missed nothing else before. Like her heart had been cleaved open and left to bleed openly, and even after all this time, it’s still bleeding.
She doesn’t know how.
Her mouth feels numb. She keeps wondering if this is actually real. It’s always been hard for her to be honest with her feelings. Even with Zuko, when they were kids. Looking at him now, the older version of him- she really, really doesn’t know how to confess how much she missed him.
Did he miss her too?
And if she doesn’t know how to tell him she missed him, then she has no idea how to ask him that.
So she just stares at him. Her heart beats in her chest. It hurts.
She missed him.
He breaks the silence first. His hands curl into the edge of his shirt. His voice sounds raspier than it used to. Deeper too. “Mai, it’s… it’s really you, right?”
Does he think she’s imagined too? Mai nods. Zuko huffs a breath that almost sounds relieved.
“What are you doing here? I thought you lived-”
“I moved,” Mai interrupts. Maybe she blurts out instead. Either way, her voice is flat. He blinks, a little fast. Taken aback? “I live with my aunt now. She has a flower shop. The guy who’s helping host this party-”
“Yes, Sokka. He invited me.” Mai’s eyes narrow. A memory tugs at the back of her head, and then realisation soaks her like cold water. “…You’re his best friend, aren’t you?”
Zuko nods. Tentatively. “If your aunt has a flower shop, you must be Flower Girl?”
Mai’s lips purse. That stupid nickname is everywhere.
“So we could have seen each other much sooner,” Zuko says, a strange melancholy to his words. “If I’d gone along with him to pick up flowers like he kept begging me too.”
Mai imagines that. Him walking in after Sokka. If Mai was holding something, would she drop it? Shatter a vase to the floor and round the counter and what? Jump at him? Maybe it’s better here, where she’s out of her depth, where she’s hyper alert and won’t embarrass herself.
There’s a banging on the door. Not that loud, really, yet they’re both jumping. “Zuko, buddy, you in there?” Sokka’s voice calls. Zuko clears his throat, takes a moment to summon his voice.
“Yeah. What- did you want something?”
“Uh, you?” Sokka sounds like he’s rolling his eyes. “Katara wants to do some massive cake cutting thing with everyone, and Aang’s got some sort of speech planned? So, yeah, you sort of need to come. So, you coming?”
Zuko looks back at Mai. Mai looks back, watching as his expression shifts through a couple of cycles. She recognises most of them.
“Yeah, I’m coming,” Zuko says eventually. “Just- give me a minute?”
“Whatever. Just make sure you hurry. Aang’s going to get real hissy if we’re not all listening to his speech about how great my sister is, and I need someone to hold the bucket for me.”
“Sure.” Zuko sounds a little strangled.
Sokka’s footsteps fade away. Mai waits, silent, for Zuko’s next move. She can’t predict what it could be. Maybe this is where it ends. One quick meeting, where she finds out he’s not dead after all, and then nothing.
“We should catch up properly.” Zuko says quickly. His eyes dart to her face, then to the floor. He’s nervous. His hands are playing with the edge of his shirt again, twisting like they used to when he was a child. That, at least, hasn’t changed. “My, uh, uncle runs a tea shop? The Jasmine Dragon? We could meet there whenever you’re free. Or something. If you wanted. We don’t have to-”
“Okay,” Mai says.
Zuko pauses, his mouth still hanging slightly open. He blinks again, like he’s recalibrating, and then his face breaks into a shy sort of smile – one Mai remembers.
“Oh. Great! That’s- great.”
He inputs her number into his phone. Smiles at her again, nervous and hesitant.
“Well. I should- go?” Zuko nods at the door. “They’ll be-”
Mai watches him leave. Then she pulls out her own phone and calls her aunt. She wants to go home.
“It’s not a date, Aunt Mura,” Mai says for the fifth time as her aunt fusses with her hair. It’s only out of fondness that Mai lets her. “It’s just a reconnecting thing. I want to find out why he-” left me. Mai’s throat goes dry for a moment. “Why he moved away. That’s all.”
“Okay, Mai,” her aunt says in the tone that means she doesn’t believe a word out of Mai’s mouth. “Still. You should look nice, meeting up with an old friend. You always used to talk so much about him when you were little! Do you remember that flower he gave you, and you called me to learn how to press it? Oh, you were so precious-”
Mai stops listening. Her heart clenches.
She still lets her aunt tie the good ribbons into her oxtail buns.
It’s not hard to find Zuko’s uncle’s shop.
He’d text her about an hour after she’d left the party, with incredibly clear directions to this tea shop they’ve arranged to meet in, along with a time he was free. Mai had stared at his number an embarrassing amount the rest of the night. She’d wanted to text him. Something. Anything.
She hadn’t. Obviously. It’d be pointless – she’s going to meet him this afternoon. What would she even have text?
The shop is painted green and gold, and looks like something out of a fairy tale. There’s a small statue of a dragon on the floor by the door. It looks, strangely, like it’s smiling.
When Mai pushes open the door, a bell jingles above her. How quaint.
There’s a couple of customers inside. Students, by the looks of it. There’s plenty of spare room though. She’s not looking for random customers though.
Her eyes find him easy enough.
Zuko’s behind the counter, staring at his phone. Half hunched over the counter, in a position that does not show the excellent posture he had as a child. When he hears the bell, his head shoots up so fast she thinks he might get whiplash.
“Mai,” he breathes like he’s surprised to see her. Maybe he thought she wouldn’t show. Mai’s perfectly on time.
She likes how he says her name though. Like it’s a breath of fresh air.
She wants to smile back at him. But her face struggles to obey those sorts of thoughts, after so long of her pushing it down, of affixing a cold, heavy mask in place of feelings. It feels foreign though, hiding so much from Zuko. He was always the one she didn’t have to hide in front of.
But things change. She’s different. He probably is too.
He straightens up – Mai gets a good look of him in an apron – and then he seems to remember something.
“One moment,” Zuko says hurriedly to her, and then sticks his head in the back, shucking off the apron. “Uncle! I’m taking the rest of the shift off, remember?”
“I remember, nephew!” A jovial voice calls back. “Take your time.”
Zuko doesn’t design his uncle with a response and instead steps out from behind the counter. He looks at her, his shoulders tense, and gestures at a nearby table. “We can sit here, if you want.”
Mai sits. Her hands stay in her lap, hidden from sight so no one can see how they twist. It’s awkward, probably the most awkward it’s ever been between them. He’s a stranger, really, and she is too; strangers who wear older faces and hold all the same memories.
She doesn’t quite know what to say. How to start this conversation. He was always the talkative one when they were younger, but now he’s just as quiet as her. The awkwardness curdles, seeping into every moment. Someone should say something. Neither of them speak.
She twists her fingers together. He clears his throat, and yet still- silence.
In the end, it’s broken by a man with the same gold-brown eyes as Zuko is walking over, a tray bearing two steaming cups in his hands. His uncle, clearly. Zuko clocks the man at the same time as she does, and the right side of his face twitches into something exasperated, the fondness just about hidden. The left side of his face doesn’t move. It wouldn’t, frozen in flame like it is.
Zuko’s uncle sets the two very much not ordered cups of tea down on the table. Mai sniffs on instinct, and smells jasmine. If she remembers correctly, that was Zuko’s favourite type of tea when they were younger.
“You must be Mai,” Zuko’s uncle smiles even with the glower Zuko’s giving him. “I remember hearing all about you when Zuko was a child! Oh, he talked my ear off about you.”
“Uncle,” Zuko pushes out past gritted teeth. “I told you to leave us alone.”
“Nephew,” Zuko’s uncle says in a pleasant imitation of Zuko’s tone. “I’m just trying to be welcoming to your… friend.”
Mai doesn’t think she likes the pause. Or the wink the man gives her. They both reek of the same sort of doubt her Aunt Mura had. Mai narrows her eyes on principle. Zuko… Zuko blushes.
“I find a good cup of tea usually helps in conversation,” the man informs with a smile. Mai wonders if he’s been watching them, sat here in awkward silence, or if he just knows Zuko well enough. “So I hope you two enjoy the tea.”
Mai has a feeling that ‘tea’ is just a placeholder for something different all together. Especially with how Zuko’s cheeks go redder. “Uncle!” Zuko hisses, but the man only laughs and walks away, surprisingly light on his feet.
It’s silent again. But not for long. Maybe Zuko’s uncle coming over was a good thing after all. It shattered the tension at least.
“I’m sorry,” Zuko blurts out. Mai’s brows crease. For his uncle or something else? “About- I’m not being very talkative.”
He’s not; Mai still doesn’t think he should be apologising for it. It’s as much on her as him.
“I just…” he looks down at the table, at the tea cup. His jaw shifts and she recognises it from when they were younger. He’s anxious and trying not to be. It hits differently now. “I don’t know what we’re meant to say.”
Likewise, Mai thinks. Outside, she tries to move her mouth, and words do not flow to her tongue. She is as lost as he is in this sea of questions and answers. What stepping stone to take first? Questions burn in her head. Where did he go? Why? But the questions are raw and bleeding, and it feels like she’ll be taking them out from her heart itself to ask. She’s hidden them so deep inside her by now. How can she just ask?
“I suppose you could start at the beginning,” she musters eventually, laying each word down like tiles in a Pai Sho game. Purposeful and thinking as far ahead as she can. Her voice remains unbreakable even if her insides quiver.
“The beginning,” he echoes, and then flashes a grimace of a look. “That makes sense.”
And Agni, this is the most awkward conversation Mai has ever had with him. It’s not all his fault. She could stand to be better.
“The beginning,” he repeats, more to himself. He straightens in his seat, squaring his shoulders. “I- I disappeared. It was crappy, I know, and confusing maybe, but maybe- maybe you didn’t care much but you probably did and- I’m not making much sense, am I?”
Mai doesn’t respond to his question. She’s too busy dissecting his confusing ramble. There’s something hammering on her skull from it. He didn’t know she cared? How could he ever think that? She always cared with him; he was the only one, once. But then he’s always been unsure, doubting of himself, but she still doesn’t even understand why he disappeared in the first place.
She says the only thing she can. Bloody words ripped from her heart.
“Why did you go then?”
Zuko looks like he’s carefully considering his words. Probably wise, after his confusing babble a moment ago.
“Do you remember the last time we talked?” He asks hesitatingly. Mai’s face, perfectly stiff, becomes icy. Of course she remembers the last time they talked. She’d replayed the memory over and over in the years since. The feeling of the breeze on her cheeks. The warmth of his hand in hers. It’d been all she’d had.
“I do,” Mai says, her voice tight. Something shifts in his expression. Mai can’t tell if it’s a good shift or a bad one.
“Well, I brought up those discrepancies I found. And… you remember how my father could be?” Mai’s face twitches. Of course she remembers how Ozai was. Back then, it’d felt like she was the only one in the world other than Zuko that noticed. The only other one who’d cared. She nods, small and controlled. “When I brought it up to him, it didn’t go as expected. Some… stuff… happened, and I had to leave.” His fingers flex around his cup. He frowns at the liquid inside, lost for a moment before he shakes himself off. “I moved in with my uncle, but you know he lived on the other side of the country.”
She nods. Moves to take a sip of her tea, just for something to do. It’s definitely jasmine. It doesn’t taste terrible.
“And I tried to get someone to tell you – I didn’t want to leave you, obviously,” obviously, he says, like it’s insane to think anything else, but Mai’s had years to think the opposite, “but well- I couldn’t really concentrate on much for the first month or so, because of-” his hand moves, a half aborted motion before he’s shoving his hand back down but Mai sees the trajectory. His face. The burn.
The sip of tea in her stomach turns to acid. His father-
“I wanted to come and see you,” Zuko says softly, like she’s already not reeling already. “I did. But Uncle thought it’d be better if I stayed away from the area. Legally. So I wrote you a letter instead, but it got returned to sender. So…”
“We moved.” Her tone is curt. She sounds angry. She is. Not at him. She thinks he thinks it is at him.
He’s waiting, she knows, for her explanations. For what we moved means. For what she’s been doing in these years. Mai’s tongue sits heavily in her mouth. She thinks about a letter, never received. She wonders what was in it. She wonders if it would have made anything better, if she’d gotten it. Her parents still would have moved. She’d still have been elsewhere.
But then, at least, he might have known where. And, at least, she’d have known he was safe.
She takes another sip of tea. It doesn’t clear the taste of her thoughts from her mouth.
“My father got a job opportunity,” Mai gives him eventually. “Though now I wonder how much it had to do with your father, since their companies worked closely together at times. It was certainly convenient.”
The urgency, the hurried move. The what-seemed-like a snap decision. The hushed looks of her parents when they thought she wasn't looking. Yes, it's all very convenient.
“A lot of his colleagues were a little leery at the time,” Zuko offers up. “The lawsuit over what- what he did.” He clears his throat, his expression twisting up. Mai looks at his hand, resting against the table. Remembers a time where she’d not even hesitate before grabbing it in comfort. As it is, her hands stay in her lap.
“We moved to a different country,” she continues instead. “Where my father had some governor job? Something to do with the government. I knew no one there. It was boring.”
The understatement of her year. Boring. Cripplingly lonely might be a better descriptor, but she won’t put those words into the air.
“You hate being bored,” Zuko observes.
“Then I moved in with my aunt, recently.” Mai neglects to mention details here as well. “It’s not boring with her.”
“That’s good. Not- not that you left your parents, but that you’re not bored anymore? That’s the good thing. Obviously.” He pulls a small face. Berating himself.
Mai thinks about the letter again.
It wouldn’t have made any difference.
“I thought you might be dead,” she admits quietly anyway, running a fingertip over the rim of her cup. She looks down at the table so she doesn’t see how he reacts to that. “You were gone and my parents told me nothing, just that I should stop asking, and you were going to confront your father,” and her voice goes sharp, and she doesn’t mean it, and it’s the most emotion she’s poured into her words this whole conversation, and her heart throbs, “so I wondered if you were dead.”
Because, after all: it wouldn’t be the first mysterious death in that house. She doesn’t say that out loud though.
“Oh,” he says, and his voice sounds strange. “I hadn’t- I never thought about it like that. I just thought-”
He doesn’t finish the sentence. He doesn’t really need to.
“I’m sorry,” he says. Mai watches her tea cup. The liquid, bumping against smooth ceramic. Anywhere but his face. His tone hurts enough.
“It’s not your fault.” Automatic. A little flat.
One year after he’d left her, Mai had spent a good few months telling herself it was. He was the one who had to snoop. He was the one with a good heart who just had to try and fix the situation. He was the one who promised.
In the end, she’d let that train of thought burn out. That’s when she’d tried convincing herself she never liked him that much anyway.
“Yeah,” he mutters. “But-”
“Did you miss me?”
The question slips quietly from her lips. She can’t remember making the decision to ask him. The words are out anyway. Cutting across whatever he was going to say. It sounds like he’s choked on his next words and now she looks up.
Zuko’s blinking at her. Rapidly, and his expression cycles. Surprise at first, then something close to indignation, like she could ever think he wouldn’t, then to something oddly fragile that makes Mai’s throat feel wrecked just looking at it.
“I didn’t…” he starts, then cuts himself off. Mai waits, seemingly patient but her heart’s beat is anything but. He twists his hands together on the table in front of her, staring down at them for a bit. He takes a breath; it’s more of a deep thing, wrenched from his stomach. She wonders, if he did miss her, if he can’t say the words. Maybe he’s like her.
Zuko lets out a breath now. He finds some sort of words to give her.
“I, uh- I cried the first time Uncle held my hand like you did,” he looks at her all shy, all awkward, all quiet. “He got really concerned, but it was just… it wasn’t you.”
In some way, his words are so much more personal than a simple yes.
Mai blinks. Rapidly. Her breath comes short; something deep inside her aches. She doesn’t want to imagine it. She imagines it.
I cried too, she wants to tell him. Until they told me not to.
She doesn’t. She can’t.
Her voice betrays her anyway, even if won’t say those words. It cracks. Right down the middle, a glacier separating in a spring thaw.
“Zuko,” Mai says, and that’s all it takes.
He’s pushing himself out of his chair. She realises, belatedly, that she is too. There are people in here, people who might look. In the moment, she doesn’t think she cares. She thinks about thinking him dead. She thinks of him missing her.
He meets her more than halfway, eager and almost tripping over the table in his haste. His arms wrap around her loosely at first, and close tightly when she lets her body collide with his.
She can hear his breathing, this close. His heartbeat.
It pounds away in his chest. Loud and alive and present.
Her face drops into his shoulder, the cloth of his uniform surprisingly soft under her cheek. Her hands twist into the back of his shirt, and they never want to let go.
“I missed you,” she says finally. Her words sound weak. Breaking in the middle, muffled impossibly quiet into him. It breaks the gates. The words pound around her head. I missed you, I missed you, I-
“I missed you too,” he says, muffled into her hair. His arms squeeze around her, clutching to her so tight.
There are people watching, probably. Definitely his uncle. He’s ruining her neat hairstyle.
Yet in this moment, Mai does not care.
They start hanging out, and it’s too easy to slip back into friendship.
She missed him after all, and he missed her, and they always were excellent friends.
One day, her life has no Zuko in it. The next, Zuko is everywhere again.
She meets his friends properly this time, and Aang finally gets to successfully do his marble trick. Mai makes Sokka unimaginably jealous when she laughs at it – I’ve been trying for weeks to get her to laugh, and it’s your stupid trick?
Mai finds she doesn’t mind the group. They’re not bad people – not that she thought they would be, considering Sokka – and they clearly make Zuko very, very happy. He beams around them in a way that once he only did around her. She could be jealous about it, but there’s no point. All she wanted once was for him to be happy. Now he is. And as the days creep on by, she thinks she could be happy too.
She and Zuko spend a lot of time reconnecting. Not over what they’ve been up to in the last few years – that’s all obvious. He moved in with his uncle and got more friends and generally happier. She lived in a different country, was miserable and now is quite content with living with her aunt. It’s only the specific stories they’ve both missed out on and that can get filled out over time – just their old pastimes. He tells her about what new books he’s read, and that turns out to be a lot. She beats him repeatedly at Pai Sho – his uncle might be a master in it or something, but Mai spent nearly three years basically alone in a foreign country with nothing to do, and Zuko’s clearly not inherited any of his uncle’s skill. He takes her to his training hall so she can show him her improved knife skills – once again, being friendless in a foreign country did wonders for her skills. She shows him around her aunt’s flower shop, explains her job to him. He brews her some tea.
They hang out at his house. It’s smaller and yet so much more warmer than his old house with his father. Zuko’s uncle likes making vague comments that make both of Zuko’s ears red. Mai finds interest with the photos on the wall. All the years she missed out on.
He comes around to her place too. It’s stranger this way, mostly because it’s been years since Mai’s had anyone over to a place she lives at, but at least her aunt is a lot more subtle than Zuko’s uncle when it comes to teasing.
It gets harder.
Mai finds herself looking at him. More than she should. She’s happy she’s got her friend back, and that’s all it should be, but then he does things. He tells her he likes her hair and is halfway towards combing his fingers through it before he remembers himself and flushes red. He falls asleep on her shoulder while they’re watching a movie on his sofa, and Mai spends the last hour of the thing watching him instead, her pulse’s quick beat a consuming thing.
He’s always been handsome – good genetics, she supposes – and the scar doesn’t change that at all. He’s starting to get as distracting as he was back then, when they were thirteen and racing off new hormones to the point that she kissed his cheek and could barely calm her heart all evening. It does not help how much they touch. Shoulder bumps and sitting far too close on sofas and hand holding too, and all of it feels so different now they’re both grown up. Mai’s cheeks keep warming.
She’s noticed though. He’s looking at her back. She pulls a stray leaf out of his hair – apparently, climbing trees is still a hobby of his, and now he does it with his friend Aang – and his cheeks burn hot when her fingers graze against his hair. She tells him she likes his tea making skills and he beams at her.
It could be nothing – imagination maybe – but she doesn’t think it is imagined. He’s looking at her.
And she’s looking at him.
Zuko swings by her work place when her shift’s nearly done. There’s some sort of group movie watching party that Mai’s been invited to. He’d offered to walk her there. Mai doesn’t need to be walked there. It’s at Sokka’s place and the guy doesn’t live that far away. She’d accepted Zuko’s offer anyway.
Luckily, Aunt Mura’s far in the back when he comes in. Mai can’t deal with another round of teasing.
He grins widely at her when he sees her, even if they’d literally hung out all day yesterday, like it’s amazing every time he sees her. It doesn’t help the feelings that keep making her heart beat race when she sees him.
“You ready?” He asks, leaning with his arms tucked onto the counter, so he’s closer to her height. His hair’s tied into a ponytail today. Unlike when he was younger, he does actually have different hairstyles now. Mai might like the ponytail best though.
“Nearly,” she says with an unaffected tone despite her heart. “I’ve just got to clean up the counter.”
He grins at her again.
Mai distracts herself with the cleaning.
It’s mostly filing away spare order forms, tucking away wandering pens and clearing left over flower debris away. She finds a stray flower on the floor, left out from one of her last arrangements, and it almost gets crushed underfoot. Forgotten and a little smushed, and she saves it from her foot by bending to pick it up. He notices, naturally. He’s always watching her now.
Something about his gaze this time makes her fingers twitch.
“A fire lily,” he comments. “It’s pretty.”
It’s pretty. Only Zuko could make such a simple compliment sound so meaningful.
“It’s their season, right?” He glances back up at her. Innocently. Like he has no idea what his words could be saying. “Summertime.”
Mai takes a deep breath. Steadies herself.
They’re great friends.
“Do you remember when you gave me one?”
Zuko, predictably, blushes. It’s not indicative of anything. He blushes easily.
But she remembers the look on his face when he gave her the flower. How he’d stumbled through his words and in the end sounded almost angry when he’d shoved the flower in her direction. She’d known he wasn’t actually angry. Just overwhelmed. Nervous. Like how he’d known she’d liked it, even if she’d only smiled and thanked him quietly.
“Yeah,” he says. He glances down at the counter. Twists his fingers together. Mai considers telling him she kept it. It’s a big ask. She hadn’t even told him when they were younger. She’d wanted to keep it a secret. Not because she thought he’d laugh, but what if he did? She doesn’t think laughing would cross his mind now.
“Come here,” Mai says instead. Beckons him forward. Zuko gives her a confused look but leans forward anyway. Trusting. Mai takes another small breath. Twirls the stem of the flower between her fingers again. She leans up on her toes. Stretches over the counter. Delicately sticks the stem of the flower into the ribbon holding his hair up. The red looks brighter against his dark hair.
Her mouth feels a little dry. Her cheeks are faintly pink; she doesn’t know if she wants him to notice.
His hand raises. Brushes carefully against the petals. He look bemused, she thinks. Bemused, but he might be blushing light pink too.
“You can keep it,” Mai says. Resists the urge to clear her throat or shift. It’s hard, with Zuko looking at her like he is. Intensely, like the sun itself is burning behind his eyes.
“I gave you your flower because I liked you,” he blurts out. He’s embarrassed in the next moment, but there’s no taking the words back. His face is still hot, but his back is firm, accepting the weight of what he’s just admitted.
Mai’s expression stutters.
“I didn’t like flowers much,” she says once she’s recovered, her voice weaker than she remembers it being. His brows furrow, confused, his eyes so heavy; she keeps going. “But I liked it when you gave me one.”
She’s watching him. Without blinking, it feels like, so she sees the hopeful look his eyes get.
It’s almost like magic, really. She’s looking at him. He’s looking at her. She’s not too sure when the thought clicks in both their heads, but when it does, it’s impossible to ignore.
His head leans down slightly. Unconsciously, maybe, but then there’s the way his eyes keep flickering to her mouth.
There’s a chance he’ll take the initiative and kiss her. There’s a chance he’ll pull his head back and ignore this ever happened.
Mai doesn’t want to wait for chance. Not after what happened last time she waited for him.
She takes a breath. Uses it to fortify herself. Leans up. The counter’s edge digs into her middle. Her hands come up to touch his face. He lets her touch him, not jerking away. She takes the next slow step. She runs the sides of her thumbs across his cheekbones, one scarred, one not. Her hands are almost shaky, testing. He doesn’t flinch from her touch. That’s a good thing.
He does look nervous, but that’s okay. She’s nervous too.
There’s less than an inch between them now.
One more step; one more lean in and-
They’re late to movie night.