Summary: Zuko angsts. Aang sulks. Iroh reasons.
Author's Notes: My first foray into the Avatar fandom. I blame my girlfriend.
If anyone had thought to ask Zuko just when and how it started, he would've been hard-pressed to give a solid answer. He just didn't know when and how Aang came to be the center of his world. All he knew was that, now that it was so, he couldn't think of a moment when Aang wasn't somehow a part of his life.
For years, Aang was nameless to Zuko. Just the "Avatar," a formless, shapeless thing, little more than a fairy tale to the Fire prince. When he was young, Zuko had pictured the missing Avatar to be a man, around his uncle's age, possibly, serene and wise beyond his years. The image followed Zuko into exile and his search for this Avatar, the one being that could restore him to honor and home.
Discovering that the mystical Avatar was, in fact, a boy, not quite even a teenager yet, was a shock that Zuko had to work to get past.
As time passed, and Zuko crossed paths more and more often with the Avatar, something changed in Zuko's mind, so slowly that even he was not aware of it at first. The Avatar ceased being the Avatar and became, instead, merely Aang, a boy who was, in the end, not too dissimilar to himself.
Later, when he had the time to do so, Zuko cursed himself for not realizing sooner what his uncle had known soon after they first crossed paths with Aang, that his and Aang's destinies were intertwined, that they weren't meant to be adversaries. Sometimes, Zuko wondered how much pain and heartache could have been averted if he had just realized sooner, seen where the true winds of Fate had been guiding him.
But, Zuko thought, things had come together in the end, and he considered himself honored to not only have stood beside the Avatar in combat, but more, to have stood by Aang, and to have walked away his friend. The question that Aang had asked him in the forest one day, finally answered.
For the first time in a long time, Zuko felt peace. He had his home, friends, his Uncle, and a best friend in Aang. He was succeeding in guiding the Fire Nation through the rocky post-war world, and, truly, there should have been nothing lacking in Zuko's life.
But there was, a hollowness in the pit of Zuko's chest that he could never manage to shake. It dogged him day and night, and no amount of activity could ease it. It wasn't until Zuko resorted to, in desperation, meditation that he realized.
The ache had started the night Aang had left the Fire Nation.
The realization confused Zuko as much as it relieved him. So, he was just missing his best friend, which was fine, but why was it making him ache so? He knew that Aang could no more stay in one place than he himself could bend water, and Zuko also knew that Aang would be back. Letters came, from all over the world, but always bearing Aang's name, proving that he hadn't forgotten his friend. There was no reason to feel as if he had lost Aang forever. He closed his eyes, trying to solve this new puzzle, picturing the scene when Aang left.
In his mind, he could hear Sokka running his mouth about something, could hear Katara scolding him and Toph's laughter. But all he could see was Aang in front of him. He lived again the rather pedestrian words they had exchanged, Aang's promise to come around whenever he could. He felt Aang's arms around him, an embrace that Zuko had only ever permitted Aang to take.
And then he saw Aang's gaze land on Katara, saw his face light up…and Zuko's eyes flew open, the realization hitting him hard and fast, as if Appa had taken a seat on his chest.
"No," he muttered, rising from his seat and pacing around the chamber. "That's not possible…it can't be…."
It all added up, though. The ache in his chest at Aang's absence. The happiness sparked by the sight of Aang's handwriting. The dark feeling that he now knew to be jealousy whenever he thought of Katara, when he thought of the way Aang looked at her.
Aang had been the center of Zuko's being for so long, in so many ways. And somewhere, along the line, through the struggles, the hardships, heartaches, and victories, Zuko had managed to fall in love with Aang.
And he had no idea what to do about it.
"You can't be! Are you insane?!"
Zuko glared at the young woman pacing in front of him. "If I am, I come by it honestly," he said stiffly. "Can you lower your voice a little? If I had wanted it announced to the palace, I would've brought it up in Council, not here with just you."
From across the room, Mai returned his glare, than sagged some. "I'm sorry, Zuko," she said, voice returning to its normal soft tones. "But you realize it's crazy, right? I mean, you, and him…."
"I know…." With a sigh, Zuko sank into a chair, running a hand through his hair. "You're right. It is insane. He's the Avatar, he loves Katara, he's a nomad by nature…."
"And he does care about you." Mai went to a window, gazing into the garden below. "It's not enough, I know, it was never enough for us, but if it is something you truly want to fight for, it's something."
Zuko shook his head. "It's not even my place to fight," he said slowly. "I can love him all I want, but it doesn't change that he…loves someone else, and I have certain duties I can't escape. Even if he did love me, could I really ask him to stay with me? Could I walk away from my people and take on that kind of life?"
"If there was love? Yes." Mai turned, sympathetic eyes meeting Zuko's gaze. "You're a passionate person, Zuko, but you're afraid of it, you always have been. Even with me, you hold yourself in check, but with him? You're…free, relaxed. It's…hard to explain." She sighed. "I can't tell you what you want to hear, Zuko. I don't even know what you want to hear. It's crazy and insane for a thousand reasons, but it's also…right. I can feel it."
Zuko was quiet for some time, turning Mai's words over in his head, and Mai watched him silently, allowing him time to think. "I can't," he said finally. "Not without a sign from him. I won't corrupt his happiness again." He groaned suddenly. "I'm a fool, Mai."
"Yes, you are," she agreed easily. "A total fool. You should have married me when I would've had you."
"I don't suppose I could change my mind about that?"
"And know my husband is in love with another man? Hardly."
"Another man…." Zuko shook his head. "No, not just another man. The Avatar."
Mai laughed softly. "Nothing but the best for Fire Lord Zuko."
Zuko stood, moving to stand net to Mai at the window, gazing down at the ground. He deserves the best, too. I don't think I am it, though.
Time passed, a year, then two. Zuko never spoke of his feelings again, and as Aang passed through Zuko's life and out again, only Mai noticed the shadow that would fall over Zuko's eyes as he gazed at his friend. Only Mai noticed how quiet Zuko got after one of these visits, but he never spoke a word, not even to her.
In desperation, Mai went to the one person she felt she could talk to, the one person that she knew would keep Zuko's secrets, would take them to the grave if necessary.
"You are fretting unnecessarily." Mai looked up as a cup of tea was placed in front of her. "Surely whatever it is cannot be as bad as that?"
Mai sipped the warm liquid, feeling it soothe the block of fear in chest. "I wish I know, Iroh." Her eyes gazed into the tea, as if searching for answers there. "Zuko's killing himself, pining away, and nothing I can say or do is helping."
"My nephew is in love?" Iroh's eyes sparkled. "This old man is the last to know everything. Has the girl rejected him?"
"It is hard to be rejected if the person pining says nothing." Mai took a deep breath. "And it is no girl that Zuko has lost his heart to. Why would he do something the easy way?" Another sip of the tea. "No, our dear Fire Lord has lost his heart to no one less than our dear Avatar."
Iroh's hands fumbled his cup, and he made a hasty grab for it in order to not spill the hot liquid. "The Avatar?" He shook his head, sighing. "My nephew does not believe in making things easy on himself." His gaze met Mai's. "Is it true, his love? Not just a remnant of all the time he spent chasing Aang?"
"I wish it was." Mai put down her cup, staring at her hands. "I had hoped, at first, that's all it was. A…holding onto the past, so to speak. But this has lasted far too long to be just a crush, just a fleeting fancy. No, I believe Zuko is well and truly in love with Aang…and the boy isn't half good enough for him!" A sudden anger gripped Mai as she slammed her fist down onto the low table. "He comes in and out of Zuko's life, totally oblivious, leaving behind nothing but tears…."
Iroh's hand covered Mai's fist, squeezing it comfortingly. "It is his nature," he said not unkindly. "Aang is the wind, Mai. He comes and goes, but remember. He has his own burdens, for one so young. He comes here often, and he carries a weight on his heart that no one sees, one as heavy as any of us bear. Do not be so hasty to judge." A smile touched his lips. "And never do his burdens seem to weigh on him more than when he has recently left my nephew's presence."
Mai bit her lower lip. "Air feeds fire," she said thoughtfully.
"And fire warms the air." Iroh nodded, watching Mai from over the rim of his teacup.
"So they both need each other, don't they?"
"That they do. But as for how, that is up to them to figure out." Iroh poured them each more tea. "Do not fret, Mai. What will be, will be, and soon, I suspect."
Mai looked at the older man, curious. "How can you say that?"
"It is a matter of balance. As it stands now, there is an imbalance, and I suspect that both of them feel it. And neither of them are men of inaction. Sometime, soon, one of them will take the inevitable step towards resolving this."
"And if Zuko is left broken in the end?"
Iroh's face was grave as he replied, "Then we will have to pray that he is not, that neither of them are." His gaze went to the window. "The balance is fragile, Mai. It will not take much to tip it, and I fear that a gulf between the Fire Lord and the Avatar would do just that."
Zuko never knew about the talk his friend and uncle had, as neither of them ever breathed a word of it to him. He did feel their eyes upon him more often, but chose to dismiss it as something that he did not need to be concerned about. Such as the fact that a very familiar figure was currently standing on his private balcony. "I see I will need to speak to my guards again."
The figure didn't even turn to acknowledge Zuko. "You can't blame them, Zuko. They didn't ever see me."
Zuko cast off his outer robes and went to stand beside his unexpected guest. "By now, they should know enough to watch the sky as well as the land and sea." A faint smile touched his lips. "It is good to see you, Aang. I wasn't expecting you."
"If it helps, I wasn't expecting to come here." Aang looked over at Zuko. "Actually, I wasn't planning to even leave, before I just found myself…here."
"The Avatar, running away." Zuko chuckled. "What was it? Another of those deathly dull meetings where everyone is threatening everyone else in the politest terms?" He'd sat through enough himself to know the drill.
In that moment, Zuko was glad he was not drinking anything, for he would've spit it out. "You left…Aang, please don't tell me you left your own wedding!" Though I wish you would.
"My own…?" Aang stared at Zuko, then began to laugh. "No! I'm not the happy groom."
"Well, good, because the fact you left doesn't speak well for that match." Almost dizzy with relief, Zuko took a seat on a bench. "So who is the lucky man?"
Aang, uninvited, took the spot next to Zuko. "A man from the Northern Water Tribes. They met in trying to find ways to make sure the two tribes communicated more, and I guess their communication was good enough, since they got married."
Zuko looked at Aang out of the corner of his eye. "Are…you alright with that?"
"Yeah, why wouldn't I be?" One of Aang's shoulders lifted in a shrug. "It's not like I'm in love with her."
"You're not?" Zuko couldn't begin to control the surprise in his voice.
"You thought I was?"
"Well…it seemed like…and…well…."
Aang covered his smile at Zuko's discomfort. "I liked her, yeah. I thought I was in love with her, too, but…I don't know. We tried, but it never felt right, and then it faded." He shrugged again. "That's life, right?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Zuko relaxed, hearing that, not having realized how much tension he had been carrying around. "So, why did you leave, then?"
"Would you believe I was lonely?" Aang's expression became sheepish. "Katara's so happy, Sokka and Suki are expecting their first child, Toph's engaged…it's hard to be around, you know?"
"So you came here?"
"Yeah, I wanted to be with my best friend." Aang looked up at Zuko, his lips twisting into a smile, though his tone was anything but happy. "Though from what I've been hearing, your engagement is going to be announced any day. You couldn't tell me, Zuko?"
"What!?" Zuko stood, turning to stare into Aang's eyes. "What are you talking about?"
"Was it supposed to be a secret? I'm sorry." Aang didn't sound particularly sorry, though. "It's all over the capital, you know. Fire Lord Zuko and his lady Mai. If you didn't want anyone to know, you should've been more discreet." His voice turned sullen.
"But…." Zuko blinked. "But there's nothing to know!"
"Isn't there?" Aang's eyes were challenging as he met Zuko's, standing so they were more evenly matched. "From what I understand, you've been acting the part of a lovesick fool. If everyone else has figured it out, then it doesn't seem like you need to keep hiding it."
Zuko shook his head. "Lovesick fool? Aang, I don't love Mai! She doesn't love me, either. There's nothing between us!" He looked at Aang, trying to repress a small flare of hope. "You sound like a jealous lover, Aang."
Aang flushed bright red. "Are you sure you don't love her?"
"Very sure." Unconsciously, Zuko took a step closer to Aang. "Maybe I'm a lovesick fool, as you've put it, but it's not for her."
"Oh?" Aang's tongue flicked across his lips, a nervous gesture.
"Yeah. And," Zuko paused, hesitating, then pushing past his doubts. "I shouldn't have kept it from you for so long."
"Are…are you going to tell me who?"
Zuko heard the quaver in Aang's voice. I could still stop this, he thought, but realized he couldn't. One way or another, he had to have it out. "Aang…." His voice lowered as he tilted up Aang's chin with a finger. "It's always been you, for longer than I care to admit."
Zuko nodded, then, realizing that words weren't going to serve him this time, close the scant inches of distance between them and kissed Aang softly, putting all his heart in the contact.
Aang's arms around his neck and the answering pressure against his lips were all the answer that Zuko needed.