Notes: Hello new fandom! I love it here already. This is my first Avatar fanfic, but not my first story ever. Please enjoy the angst.
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Insert any other necessary and/or witty disclaimers.
For every hundred things he loves about her, there are a thousand more he hates.
He hates that all she has to repair are her broken grounds in the Southern Water Tribe. She can rebuild from the remains, ban together with her tribe to reach a common goal. Yet, here he is, faced with the Fire Nation, an entire kingdom of people who still blindly cling to his father's injudicious ideals. He must start from scratch to build values, beliefs, understanding. He hates that she can't see how much more difficult his task is and that she didn't stay to help.
He hates that he misses her hopefulness, her preaching, the flash of her eyes when she grows irrevocably passionate, especially when she would turn that gaze on him. He misses her care, her humor, her presence. Her. He hates that she left, that she writes him letters that go on for days, asking inane questions such as How are you?
Try as he might, he can never think of a suitable answer so he disregards the question and hates that his rebuke doesn't ever stop her from asking.
He looks at Mai. She stands beautifully by a window, her figure outlined in the burning light of the sun. In that moment, she represents his past, his childhood, of wanting particular privileges and birthrights with a hunger that surprised him presently.
But he has moved on from certain birthrights and the flawed value system he had been raised on. She is part of an old life.
It's possible to want something different, something new, he admits to himself. But she loved him enough to leave Azula, the aristocracy, the way of life she had always flourished in. Isn't that enough? At one time, it would have been.
If he has moved beyond his childhood, has he moved beyond Mai?
His friends are scattered over the world, each in different lands as they mend the chaos his father brought on. He receives news from them all and when (if) he writes back, he is perfunctory in his response, sparing in pleasantries.
Uncle disapproves, the silent shaking of his head the only indication. Zuko knows he needs his friends, but at what cost?
He just does not understand everyone's pressing need to include such personal information in their letters. What should he care to hear about Aang's love for her written in the Avatar's rough script? It's none of the Fire Lord's concern, after all.
It's when she writes a letter, asking about Azula's health, that he knows it had gone beyond his control. He could picture her tentatively writing, perhaps writing several versions of the letter until finally settling on what she apparently decided was the most thoughtful of phrases.
He hates that she has a sibling who loves her and he hates that she understands what it is to love someone regardless of their many flaws.
His scar had always separated him from others, but he had faced his opposition with selfish vanity. Now, it brands him as the struggle he endured to secure his place as the Fire Lord. It's a symbol of what he overcame to help their nation from their corruption.
No one in the Fire Nation has scars. At least, none from battle. They are all unscathed both physically and emotionally, a horrific contrast to the other nations who all bare scars from the past.
Will she still visit if there's no one here to heal?
I'm still here, he reminds himself.
And it never bothered him before that Mai was always bored, monotone, listless, dull, but he's seen what others can do in the same situation. He's seen firsthand how they can take the most banal of days and make them into something hysterical, something interesting.
He wants to shake her, to convince her to do something, anything. Go see a play, go for a walk, train together. Anything. But she resists lethargically, her only motion to kiss him woodenly on the lips which he returns because he doesn't know what else to do.
He's starting to resent her and wish she was more optimistic, but he knows she never changed.
Sometimes when he sleeps, he dreams of her. He dreams in cerulean and silver, soft words and fervent speeches.
He awakes in a cold sweat (of course it's cold, it's her) and wants to ban her from his mind.
Desperately, he entertains the notion of never seeing her again. How impossible could it be? To refuse her requests to visit or have him visit the rebuilding Southern Water Tribe?
But he is no fool and knows it is naïve to think he could escape her. And naivety is something the Fire Lord could no longer afford.
He wonders if he is still Zuko or if he has been replaced by a new entity referred to only as The Fire Lord.
He struggles to be a great leader. Most leaders try to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, but he fought against that. He chose a different path and with that came new expectations and questions. His future is uncertain.
He sees Mai, a symbol of old tradition. Of fire with fire. Of a marriage appealing to the masses, the general public.
But she arrives unbidden in his mind. Perhaps it is time for new traditions, he muses.
He's terrified he will make the wrong move and cause his people to doubt his authority and command. He will not be overthrown for something as simple as a marriage.
And really, is marriage ever that simple? After all, marriage does not always equate to love.
(But it could, his mind whispers conspiratorially.)
Almost a year to the day of their defeat of the former Fire Lord (his father, he still has trouble accepting it), everyone comes to the Fire Nation to celebrate, rejoice, congratulate each other on a job well done.
He waits in anticipation of everyone's arrival, hugging Toph as she barrels into his arms, having treats for Momo in his pocket, and no one really has changed at all. Except him.
Aang talks and talks, filling the halls of the palace with his humor and laughter and countless words. And every time the Avatar says her name, the firebender knows what it is to freeze.
The siblings will arrive in just another day, coming from a further distance.
He hates that she leaves him uncertain, wondering if there is something he should do. If there was something he should have done.
Aang announces with nearly tangible excitement that they are on their way, but Zuko stopped listening after he said her name.
He stares at the archway to the courtyard, waitinghopingpraying for her entrance and all at once, there she is.
Racing ahead of her brother, arms outstretched, beaming smile. He's closest to the archway and is the first to receive her hug, although he's sure the others deserve it more.
As she comes toward him, the sun shines down on her and he regretfully understands that his love can't be canceled out by any hate.
He loves her best under bright sunny skies when her pupils constrict so that all he can see is an expanse of perfect blue.
The problem with fire and water is that they are constantly extinguishing each other.