Mai rolled over, opening her eyes though the room was too dark for her to see. She ran her hand over the wrinkled sheets and stretched her fingers to the far edge of the bed. No one lay beside her, and the indentation his body had left was cold. She felt herself frown, lips pursed and thin brows drawn together.
Zuko never hid anything from her. This was partly because she'd figure it out anyway — he was terrible at subterfuge, worse where the people he loved were concerned. But mostly, she knew, he simply did not want to. They had spent so many years wondering, staring up at iron deck plates and silk canopies as they imagined the life the other might be leading, a picture pieced together from what scraps of information crossed the ocean between them. When they parted that second time, by his own choice and with far less ceremony, all he'd left her with was a note full of unwanted apologies, the details withheld and later, a steel door closed and locked to keep her from following.
"Never break up with me again," she'd said, with a severity that was only half-playful, but they'd both known what she really meant.
In the months since his coronation, Zuko had taken almost ludicrous care to make certain she knew everything she might want to. No door was every closed to her, now. She had tested this one afternoon, approached the throne room when she knew he was meeting with a temperamental envoy of the colonies. Everyone else had been explicitly barred from the room. But when she had asked the guard to let her pass, he had stepped aside without a word of protest. She hadn't gone into the meeting, of course — her girlhood had been a endless string of official functions, and now she gladly exercised her ability to avoid them — but she could have, had she wanted to.
Mai knew, though he had never stated it so baldly, that she could follow Zuko wherever he went, her movements and her knowledge of his limited only by whether she chose to pay attention. She appreciated this, though she wasn't a prying sort of girl by nature. She had her secrets, most small and some less so, and he so rarely sought any kind of privacy from her. She didn't worry about where he and Sokka went on those nights he came home smelling of whiskey and pickled fish, asleep before he could undress himself. She wasn't interested in the details of his research into dragon breeding, a subject he and Aang spent many of his spare hours discussing, tucked away in the library while servants brought them platters of tea and sandwiches.
Zuko had every reason to be content. The war was over, Azula had been secreted away to some quiet cell while he decided what to do with her, obligation never called him away for more than a day or two at a time, his friends visited often and made him so obviously and tremendously happy that Mai couldn't complain about the headaches they caused. They weren't married, not yet, but they spent every night together with no consequence greater than court gossip. She kept her own house in the capital city, and that artifice was enough to satisfy most people.
"I'm fine," he'd said, those few times she'd tried to ask. He didn't seem fine to her. He stared through walls and down at his hands whenever he thought no one was watching him. His laughter was rare and too considered, the effort of every smile plain on his face. He slipped out of bed in the middle of the night, sometimes coming back and sometimes staying away until morning.
"It's nothing," he'd said as they pulled the covers over them a few hours before. "I'm just tired."
The palace floors were marble, cold enough that Mai felt it through the rugs beneath their bed. She kept her footsteps silent as she crossed the room and stepped out into the hall, out of habit more than any need for stealth. The servants knew better than to question what she did, and she guessed that Zuko was past noticing much of anything tonight.
His swords hung unused in the practice room, just as he'd left them after their workout that morning. The doors to the library were shut and latched from the outside. The shadowy banks of the turleduck pond were empty, the garden silent except for the small, wet sounds of fish beneath the water. She had spent most of an hour wandering dark corridors before she thought to look beyond the palace walls.
She waved off the guards who tried to persuade her into a palanquin — no need to worry about appearances in the middle of the night — and strode across the courtyard, through hastily-opened gates toward the residence that faced them.
The windows were shuttered, but she could see a lamp burning through the wooden slats. It could have been anyone, perhaps some servant who'd fallen behind on their duties, but she knew that wasn't the case. No servant would use that much lamp oil, and a house whose only resident slept in the Fire Lord's bed didn't need this many guards.
She recognized one of them, an older man with a full beard and a deep, skeptical frown. "Lady Mai," he said with his usual gruffness, as if she weren't barefoot and in her dressing gown as she wandered around the capitol.
"How long has he been here?" she asked. The staff allowed their new Fire Lord to roam the palace unmolested, but a small army followed him whenever he left its walls. Not everyone was happy with how life had changed once the war was over.
"Three hours, maybe longer," said the guard. "He just sent for more ink."
"He brought his own paper."
"I see." She watched the lamplight flicker behind the shutters, her arms folded across her chest. Summer was over, and even in the Fire Nation the nights could be chilly. "Don't let anyone in until I say."
"But the ink-"
"The ink can wait," she said, and opened the door to her house.
She found him hunched over the writing desk in her room, surrounded by scrolls he'd propped open with smooth stones and scraps of paper covered in his untidy handwriting. His hair was down, long enough now that it fell past his shoulders and curled around his chin. He was wearing his lucky shirt, the one he'd worn when he'd gone to help the Avatar, which was not a good sign at all.
He'd insisted that Katara be the one to mend it, which Mai had to admit was fitting, and she had done a reasonable if inelegant job of patching over the parts that had been burned. He'd worn it the day Azula had been sent away, the afternoon Aang had left for the Earth Kingdom, the morning he'd admitted that his search for Ursa would have to wait. He said that it reminded him of what he'd gained in those weeks before the comet arrived, all the things that made his sacrifices worthwhile. She wondered why he needed that reminder tonight.
Having run out of ink, he was rereading something he'd already written, the paper creased in his too-tight grip. His voice was soft, though there was no one there to hear him. "Due to present circumstances, it is in both our best interests…" He shook his head, pushed around the other papers on the desk and found a ragged-looking brush. He held the tip between two fingers until it charred, then used it to scratch out a line and scribble revisions into the margins. "It is in the Earth Kingdom's interest to allow the former colonies to self-govern if they want to. If they elect to. If they so choose…"
He jumped at the sound, turning in his chair to face her with the paper crumpled in one hand and his makeshift pencil in the other. "Mai," he said. "You're awake."
"So are you." She pulled a stool over to the desk and sat, her hands folded in her lap. "I thought the Earth King was going to be here next week."
Zuko's adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. "He is."
"Then why are you writing him?" she asked gently. Sometimes Zuko wasn't very good with logistics. "He won't see it until he gets back to Ba Sing Se."
Zuko sighed and looked down at the paper again. His face was smudged with ink, and the circles under his eyes were darker than they'd been when she kissed him goodnight. "It's not a letter," he said. "I just…I need to figure out what to say to him…"
"You won't have to make a speech," she said. She looked at the paper, too, but the chickenscratch characters were hard to make out. "He just wants to meet you."
Zuko shook his head. "He wants to talk to me about the colonies. And reparations. And trade agreements. And all those factories King Bumi tossed out of Omashu." He picked up a discarded sheet and smoothed it out on the desktop, his eyes flickering over what he'd written. "I have to figure out what I'm going to say."
"The Earth King was a figurehead his entire life, then spent six months riding around on his bear. I think it's safe to say you know more about politics than he does."
She'd meant it as a joke, but he didn't laugh. "He'll have his generals with him. They know plenty. And there're five of them. And the youngest is twice my age. And-"
"Zuko, they know you're new at this, they're not going to-"
"They're going to expect me to know what the hell I'm doing!" he snapped, then flinched at his own tone. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I just..." He pushed back from the desk and got up, the pencil twirling nervously between his fingers as he paced up and down the bedroom. "You're right, I can't finish this now. I keep having to look things up. I should memorize it all first, before I do anything else." He picked a scroll out of the pile and handed it to her. "Here. Test me on the names of the colonial governors."
Mai frowned at the scroll in her hand. "It's four in the morning," she said.
Zuko was pacing again. He drummed the burnt brush against his open palm, and didn't seem to be listening. "Don't ask me in order. If I learn them in order, I'll just be learning the sequence."
"I'm not going to quiz you on colonial governors at four in the morning," said Mai, louder this time.
Zuko stopped and turned to her, his eyes finally focusing on her face. "I'm sorry. I'm keeping you up."
"That isn't what I'm worried about," said Mai. She placed the scroll on the desk and walked over to him. The muscles in his shoulders and neck were drawn taught, and she could feel them twitch beneath his skin as she cupped his jaw in her hand. "Come back to bed. This can wait until tomorrow."
Zuko pulled away, shaking his head. "No, it can't wait. I need to know this. They'll be here in six days, and I still don't know the names of half the provinces."
"There're twenty-seven city states in the Earth Kingdom, and eight colonies," he said, counting on his ink-stained fingers, "That's thirty-four mayors and kings and governors I need to know-"
"Exactly! And that's not even counting the ambassadors and court officials, plus the independent territories in the South Sea-"
Mai took him firmly by the shoulders, angling her head so that their eyes met. "Stop," she said, holding his gaze. He shut his mouth obediently, though he was still breathing hard. "No one expects you to know all of this."
"They do," said Zuko, his voice edged with panic. "I can't mess this up. If I mess this up, they'll know they made a mistake."
"They'll know I shouldn't be Fire Lord."
Mai prided herself in how perfectly she controlled her own features, but her eyebrows shot up at that. "Of course you should be Fire Lord," she said. "That's what you were born to be."
"I was born to conquer the Earth Kingdom, too. Birth doesn't mean anything."
"That's awfully radical of you."
"Dad didn't take the throne until he was thirty-five. I was supposed to have ten more years to figure this out. I was supposed to spend the last three learning all this shit, but I didn't, I spent them chasing Aang across the planet, and now I'm seventeen and I'm Fire Lord and I don't know how to run a country! I can't even run my own life! And everyone knows, I mean they have to know, it's got to be obvious that I don't have a fucking clue what I'm doing-"
Mai squeezed his shoulders. "You're doing fine," she said, and meant it, but he closed his eyes against her reassuring smile and shook his head as he spoke.
"Mai, I am not even a little bit fine. I'm just guessing. I can't trust my father's advisors, and Aang and Sokka are gone, so Uncle and Piandao are all I've got. And they can't do this for me. So I'm trying to do what feels right, but I can't run a country on feelings, I can't keep things together if I don't have some kind of plan. And my plans are terrible."
"Zuko, listen to me," she said. "You need to stop."
"You need to stop," she said again. "And you need to be quiet until I'm done talking."
He looked as if he wanted to argue, but he clenched his jaw and nodded.
"You're right. You are seventeen. And you've done more in the past year than most people do in their whole lives. More than I've done. More than Azula did."
"I haven't done anything," said Zuko, bewildered. "I've just helped everyone else."
"Helping other people counts, Zuko," she said, and wondered when she'd become so earnest. "That's why you wanted to be Fire Lord. To help people."
"I can't help anyone. I can't even help myself."
"Now you're just being stupid," said Mai.
"I beat my little sister in a fight I didn't even want to have, and now I'm drowning in politics. That's it! That's nothing!"
"Ending the war isn't nothing, Zuko," said Mai. "Fixing the mess your father left isn't nothing."
Zuko didn't answer. He reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose, deep lines creasing his brow.
Mai brushed a lock of hair back from his forehead, tucked it behind his scarred ear. "Your father's in prison," she said quietly. "The Avatar's alive and he's your friend. The Sun Warriors sent you an envoy a week after the coronation. There are dragons in the city for the first time in a hundred years. You're reforming the schools. You shut down the Royal Information Ministry. You're using your army to plant forests. You're using war balloons for irrigation. You're using tanks for scrap metal to build ships, and using the ships to relocate refugees. You walked through Ba Sing Se next to your uncle and they cheered you in the streets."
Her eyes stung as she spoke, and she felt the pull of old habit, a voice telling her she shouldn't let him see her like this. She ignored it. They had nothing to hide from each other. "The war is over," she said, the words still so strange in her mouth. "It's over."
"Because of Aang," Zuko whispered. "It's all because of Aang."
"Aang isn't the one putting this country back together again."
"I'm just…" Zuko bent forward until their foreheads met, his shoulders sagging beneath her hands. "It can't last, Mai. I know it can't."
"I'll mess it up."
She reached up to stroke his hair. "You won't."
"I mess everything up."
"Not everything." Mai kissed his undamaged eyelid, the skin soft and warm under her lips. "Some things you're very good at."
She felt his arms curl around her back. "Like what?" he asked, a little sullen.
She kissed his mouth this time, her fingers in his hair. His lips parted for her, his mouth hot and eager as he kissed her back, and his hand slid down along her spine to the small of her back.
"You're trying to distract me," he said, soft and low.
"Is it working?"
"Yes," he said.
Then neither of them said anything for a while, and Mai was glad she'd told the guards to stay away
Later, as Mai lay on the floor of her room with the lucky shirt bunched under her head and Zuko's long, lean body curled beside her, she reached up to the desktop again. After a few moments of blind groping, she found the scroll Zuko had handed her. Zuko opened the eye that wasn't pressed against her shoulder and watched as she unrolled it.
"This isn't a list of governors," she said.
The eye blinked in surprise. "It isn't?"
"I guess I was more tired than I thought." He moved to take the scroll from her, but she lifted it out of his reach. "What is it, then?"
"A letter. To my uncle." Zuko grabbed for the scroll in earnest, but Mai batted his hand away. "Apparently you're still apologizing for not coming to get me."
"I have a proposal," she said as she carefully re-rolled the letter. "Stop worrying about governors, and I'll tell him not to kill you."
Zuko chuckled a little, though she could tell he wasn't sure if she was joking. "I don't know. I worry a lot."
"You can't worry at all at the bottom of a boiling lake."
"That's true." He took the letter back from her, finally, and set it aside before snuggling closer. "Mai?"
"Why did you come looking for me tonight?"
Mai took a few moments to answer. It wasn't that she minded his need for time alone, or even the occasional episode of insomnia. She understood both of these things very well. "You left without saying anything."
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I didn't want you to worry." Zuko turned his face toward her neck, muffling his words. "But I'm glad you're here."
"Do you feel any better?"
She imagined she could hear him thinking. "A little. It helps to talk to you." He laughed softly, and she could feel his breath on her skin. "You're good at putting things into perspective."
"It's a lot of work, in your case."
"I hope it's worth it."
She smiled and kissed his forehead. "It is."