Warnings: Crack ship and a whole boatload of angst.
A/N: Written for the A:TLA Couples Month Challenge. The characters belong to Nickelodeon and not me; I'm just playing with them, and make no money from this fic. Also, the lyrics to "You Make Me Wanna" belong to Usher. (Yeah, I know. My musical taste is questionable). Thanks to Val-Creative for betaing, despite her deathly illness!
You're one I used to run to when me and my
girl was having problems
You used to say it would be okay
suggest little nice things I should do
And when I come home at night and lay my head down
all I seem to think about is you
Zuko was close to insanity during the preparations for his wedding. It wouldn't have been difficult to drive Zuko to madness; insanity, it seemed, ran in his family. At least this sort of insanity was apparently pretty normal for a groom pre-wedding. The planning for weddings, if common wisdom was to be believed, was always hellish. But as Fire Lord, the planning was even more hellish than usual for Zuko – particularly so since his future bride's life was constantly being threatened by various terrorist groups, who either hated her because she had betrayed Azula or because she had once been friends with Azula.
He'd thought it would be Mai who would keep him from madness. But in the end, it was not Mai, but Suki.
Iroh had told Zuko that he would need to create a restful space for himself, somewhere to go where he could be alone when the pressures of being Fire Lord became too much.
"Part of the reason so many people in our family are driven to madness is because of the immense pressure of being royalty," Iroh told Zuko, in one of his daily letters. "You must not bring shame on the family. You must always act a certain way, and be victorious and successful. You must make decisions for your entire country, decisions that are not always popular. It is easy to lose your mind when that is your daily life. Your father never had a safe place to visit; neither did Azula, or Azulon, or any of the others. They did not try to stop and look into themselves. They never had peace. If you mean to be a good Fire Lord, you must have peace."
So Zuko had built a garden behind the palace. There had already been a fairly extensive network of garden courtyards, but Zuko's was special. It included a pond – one fully stocked with turtleducks – and several beautiful flowering trees. He also kept a little vegetable garden there, as a task to keep himself occupied. Growing vegetables, he found, had surprising effects on his temper. He always felt more accomplished after working in his garden, like he had finally done something worthwhile – like something under his control had finally gone right.
There was a single bench there; one Toph had carved for him from stone as a much-belated coronation gift. It was elaborately designed, an entire diorama of the capital city inlaid on the legs and back of the bench. The seat was a diorama of the palace. Iroh had positioned the bench so that Zuko could watch the sun rise.
More often than not, though, Zuko came to see the moon. There was something serene and beautiful about it that put his mind at ease. The sun reminded him of his country, of all that his people needed and wanted and demanded – but the moon was pure and beautiful and calm, and seemed to look down on him with sympathy and kindness.
Zuko had been going there more and more of late to see the moon and stars. He had never much cared for the night sky, but anymore he found it peaceful. The dark was welcome, the cool light – what little there was – softening the look of all of Zuko's difficulties.
It was better, he thought, to stand and look at the night sky than try and stay inside with Mai.
It was politics that really troubled Mai – all that posturing and indecisiveness and trying to look good for the people. She told Zuko time and time again that it sickened her, seeing all the emissaries bowing obsequiously to Zuko in the council chamber and then whispering behind his back later at how young he was, how stupid, how naive. "It's all an awful game of 'see who can kiss the most ass,'" Mai complained. "My father used to do the same old crap, currying favor and acting like someone he wasn't at all, trying to please everyone and ending up pleasing no one. It's idiotic, and it's beneath you. There's got to be a better way to do things."
Zuko hated it too, but it was part of his job. And he had to kiss more than a little ass himself to make what he wanted happen.
What he wanted was peace. What he wanted was to see the nations all as friends, Fire Nation with Earth Nation with Water Tribe. What he wanted was to make up for all the loss his forefathers had caused.
What he wanted was the impossible, if Mai was to be believed.
"You can't make it all happen, Zuko," Mai told him, time and time again. "Nobody wants to like us. We're Fire Nation. You're going to have to go to insane lengths to prove you really want to be friends – more insane than everything you've already done, and you've already done some pretty crazy things in the name of peace. Doing something that extreme will make you madder than Azula."
He'd turned to glare at her. "Don't say that," he snapped. Zuko hated discussing Azula, or even thinking about her. He couldn't bear to visit her anymore. She'd devolved into near-constant hysterical fits, screaming and howling and spitting blue fire every which-way. It was horrifying to watch, and he in part blamed himself for it. He'd never really loved Azula, but she was still his sister, and he felt responsible for her.
Mai understood – or said she understood – but she was frequently cavalier about what had happened to Azula anyway. Zuko resented her for not taking Azula's madness more seriously – but he resented her more for the fact that she actually had the courage to visit Azula twice every week anyway.
Obviously he wasn't the only one who found this baffling. Somebody believed Mai was in league with Azula, and that somebody wanted Mai dead.
"It's not like I want to see her," Mai told Zuko, when he'd asked her about it. "But I feel like I should on your behalf. You're certainly not visiting her."
The way she'd said it, Zuko had thought it was an accusation. But when he'd turned to look at her, she was calm and relaxed, busy sharpening a shuriken. "Besides," she said, "Ty Lee sends me letters for her. Ty Lee still cares, even if no one else does. And even if Azula isn't my friend, Ty Lee is."
Ty Lee had been around the palace a lot recently. Mai had asked her to be part of the wedding planning and to serve as a witness, and Ty Lee of course had been delighted to accept. She was planning basically the entire wedding, with Mai's grudging assistance. There was going to be a lot of pink.
She was also visiting Azula even more than Mai had previously. And Mai, despite the many death threats Zuko kept receiving, went with her every time.
"You can't keep doing this," Zuko told her, when she returned from one of the visits. "People think you really care about her."
"I don't care what people think," Mai snapped. "I care about Ty Lee, and Ty Lee needs some emotional support when she goes to visit. She hates seeing Azula like this, and I don't blame her. She and Azula were always a lot closer than Azula and I ever were. She needs me to be there while she deals with what happened. And I'm going to be, no matter what those idiots out there want from me. Ty Lee saved my life; the rest of them were happy to watch me burn."
"It's not like these idiots are just whispering about you behind your back," Zuko said, gritting his teeth. "They're threatening to kill you, Mai."
"And what? You think they can?" Mai replied.
"You're not invincible," Zuko said. "And no matter how many safeguards I put around the palace, somebody might still get to you. Somebody really smart could do it."
"Well, we appear to have all the smart people on our side," Mai said, smiling. "Except you, of course."
He'd clenched his fists, turned on his heel, and stormed out.
"Zuko, it was a joke!" Mai had called after him, but he'd still walked away.
Things had been more and more like that, lately. He had to admit he'd never been that great at taking a joke, but the stress of being Fire Lord, plus trying to plan a wedding, plus dealing with so much opposition even against his marriage, was making him angrier and angrier every day.
With Mai, that was dangerous. She hated that he couldn't be more relaxed about life, and he wished she'd actually try to give a shit about something every now and again.
He knew it wasn't fair to think of her that way, because she did care. But it was the fact that she pretended not to that bothered him most.
It soon was obvious that Zuko and Mai weren't the only ones having problems.
The entire gang had come to stay at the palace in preparation for the wedding. Aang and Katara had arrived together, cuddly and goo-goo eyed as always. Mai had rolled her eyes into the next continent when she'd greeted them.
Ty Lee had shown up alone, but cheerful, dressed in something stunningly pink. She was the only person permitted to hug Mai upon their meeting. She was the only guest who dared, and the only person who Mai would ever have hugged back anyway.
Iroh and Toph arrived together, cracking jokes and teasing each other excessively. It was a relief to see Toph so happy; only a few months ago she had worried them all with a hideous bout of depression. Seeing her smiling and laughing again was wonderful. Even Mai looked happier than usual when she met Toph and Iroh at the door.
Sokka and Suki were the last to arrive. They seemed friendly enough, but something was distinctly different about them. There had previously been a sense of togetherness around them, the unfailing feeling of love and devotion that had always made Zuko a little envious, until Mai came back to him. But there was something formal and uncertain about the way they held themselves. Sokka didn't take Suki's hand or wrap his arm around her waist; in fact, he hardly touched her at all. And Suki immediately grabbed Mai's hand and started talking about wedding preparations, heading off down the hall with hardly a word to Sokka.
"You've been fighting," Zuko said to Sokka when Suki was gone.
Sokka turned to stare at him, open mouthed. "I – what?" He laughed, nervously. "Psh, you're crazy. We're totally fine." He blinked. "Unless you mean, like, fighting in a battle," he said. "In which case, yes, we have been. Some people from one of those little terrorist groups attacked us. There sure are a lot of them these days, aren't there? I thought we'd have that under control by now."
Zuko's stomach clenched in fear. "What kind of terrorists? Fire Nation? Earth Nation?"
"Earth Nation, I think," Sokka said, shrugging. "They were all in green. But that doesn't really tell us much. It could be Fire Nation people pretending to be Earth Nation people in order to blame it on the Earth Nation and re-start the war."
Zuko eyed Sokka scornfully.
"It could totally happen," Sokka said, pointing a finger. "You just watch."
Zuko frowned. If these cells stopped showing their allegiances, it would be far more difficult to find them and destroy them. They'd cause more trouble for everyone, and the war likely would begin again.
Zuko slumped against the wall and ran a hand through his hair. "I don't have time for all this wedding crap," he confessed to Sokka. "I've got so many other important things to be doing."
"I'm sure Mai understands," Sokka said. He sounded uncomfortable.
"No," Zuko said darkly. "She doesn't."
That night, Zuko and Mai fought again.
"You have to stop seeing Azula," Zuko told her.
She turned to look at him, blankly. "Why?" she questioned, raising a thin eyebrow. "Because it makes you uncomfortable?"
"Because people are trying to kill you, mostly because of this!" Zuko snapped. "I can't let the whole world fall apart just because you can't stay away from a friend you went and betrayed in the first place."
Mai lifted her chin, glaring down at him. "Yeah," she said coldly. "For you."
Zuko deflated. "I know."
He reached out to touch her cheek, but she pulled back and angrily pushed his hand away.
He closed the hand into a fist. "We have to think about our image with the public," he said, gritting his teeth. "We have to be careful not to do anything wrong, or else everyone gets angry and war starts again."
Mai laughed bitterly. "You sound just like my mother," she said, staring at some speck on the wall that Zuko couldn't see. "'Don't do this! Don't do that! We have the family's political career to think about!'" She sighed and closed her eyes. "I hate politics."
Zuko studied her intently, and felt a chill run through him. "Mai, we can't be married if you're going to hate politics," he said. "I mean, I pretty much am politics."
Mai looked up. Her eyes were sharply defined in the light of their room, cold and dark and full of emotion. Her eyebrows were drawn into a dark v, her lips thinned and pale. When Mai felt, she felt deeply – even if she didn't want to admit it. "Don't say things like that," she said.
Zuko groaned. "I didn't say I didn't want to marry you," he said. "It's not like I'm leaving you another note."
It was the wrong thing to say. "Yeah, well, whenever you decide it's not politically advantageous to be with me, just drop that note by my room and have the guards escort me out," she said. Her voice was light, but it was brittle and angry at the edges. "I'll make sure to swing by and berate you before getting myself locked up or killed on your behalf. Again."
Zuko opened his mouth to protest, but Mai held up her hand. "Shut up," she said. "I don't need to hear it."
She stormed out, and Zuko was alone.
Zuko went straight for his garden, exhausted and angry and miserable.
The moonlight didn't make his problems look any better that night. Instead the darkness seemed to make the issues swell in his mind, crowding out any attempted, happier thoughts. Every corner held another rebel; every windy whisper was Mai's voice spitting angry words in his face.
He'd never needed his garden more than he needed it now. But when he got there, starting for his bench, he found that it was already occupied.
Suki sat in a pool of moonlight, her back to him. She was wearing something blue and shimmering and translucent. The way the shadows hit her, she almost appeared to be a ghostly vision, a message sent from the Spirit World to Zuko. Everything about her looked paler and sadder in the moonlight, even the upward tilt of her head as she looked into the sky.
For an instant, Zuko was angry. This was his space. She had no right to invade it.
But then he saw that she was crying, and he thought perhaps she needed it more than he did.
Zuko approached her on silent feet. "Hey," he said.
Suki gasped and jumped up. She whirled on Zuko and leaped at him, sending him stumbling against the wall. She held his wrists firmly and pinned him, her eyes narrowed into angry slits. It was an odd contrast with the thin, wet streaks still glistening on her cheeks.
Her eyes immediately widened when she realized who he was – looking, he noted, at his scar first.
"Um... hi," Zuko said, arching his single eyebrow.
"Oh, Zuko!" Suki released him, pressing a hand to her mouth. She turned very red. "I'm so sorry. I thought you were some attacker or something – we met a group of them in a village on the way here – I'm just so on edge these days – I – "
"Suki, it's ok," Zuko said, smiling. "I understand. I'm a bit on edge myself."
She nodded, her eyes wide and serious. "I can imagine," she said. "With all those letters and things... I'm kind of surprised you're wandering alone, actually. Does Mai know you're out here?"
Zuko knew his expression must have told Suki everything; a shadow passed across her face, and she looked away, biting her lip. "Oh," she murmured. "Sorry."
"Not your fault." Zuko turned away and looked towards the moon. It was only a sliver, but it still felt immediately soothing to him. He could feel the tension leave his shoulders, and he relaxed, staring intently into the dark sky. "The moon is nice tonight."
"Sokka says she's always nice," Suki said. Zuko glanced at her, frowning; she sounded bitter. "He says she was the nicest girl he ever met."
"Oh, right," Zuko said. "He dated the girl who became the Moon Spirit. I forgot."
Suki turned her back on the moon. "I wish I could forget," she mumbled, walking past him.
"Huh?" Zuko turned to follow her progress, staring intently at her back.
She half-waved over her shoulder. "Sorry for disturbing you," she said. "I'm sure you want to be alone."
Zuko bit his lip, watching her as she walked away. Her shoulders were slumped, her head bowed. She looked so unbearably sad and lonely. "No, actually, I don't," he said. "You... want to sit with me or something?"
Suki stopped in the middle of the path. She turned to look at him, both eyebrows raised in surprise. Zuko noticed how blue her eyes were in the moonlight – bluer than Katara's or Sokka's, he thought.
"Really?" Suki said, biting her lip. "I mean, I don't want to interrupt or any—"
"No, no!" Zuko said, hurriedly. "No, you're fine. I mean, I more interrupted you than you interrupted me. I mean, this is my spot, but... uh... it's a nice spot. For thinking and things. Very... er... peaceful. And – and it'd be fine if – if you wanted to stay here for awhile."
He hated himself for his tripping tongue. He sounded like an idiot.
But Suki smiled nonetheless. "Wow," she said, walking towards him. "Thanks, Zuko. That's really sweet."
Zuko sagged in relief. "You're welcome," he said.
He watched her make her way to the bench. She was a little shorter than Mai, and more delicate. Mai was all sharp angles and heights; Suki was delicate and petite. Seeing her now, it was difficult to believe that she was a fierce warrior, one of the finest he'd ever met. Her hair looked paler in the moonlight, soft and beautiful and bleached of its warm caramel color.
"So... uh..." Zuko dropped onto the bench next to her and folded his hands in his lap. "Mind if I ask why you were crying?"
She smiled a little. "If I minded, it'd be too late to take it back now, wouldn't it?" she said.
Zuko shifted awkwardly. "Oh," he said. "Yeah, I guess it would." He gnawed at his lip, watching her out of the corner of his eye. "You don't have to tell me," he said. "I know sometimes you just don't want to talk about it. I just don't want you to be upset and not have an outlet, or anything." He looked up towards the moon. "Uncle tells me it's important to have an outlet for your sadness and anger. That's why I built this place, actually. Somewhere to go when things were bothering me. It's kind of my peaceful place."
"That's a really good idea," Suki said. She sighed. "I wish I could have one of those."
"Well, as long as you're here, you can borrow this one," Zuko said. "Just... don't tell anyone else, ok?"
He looked towards Suki. She was no longer crying; she was smiling warmly at him, and the light that had previously bleached her face of life and color now just seemed to make her shine. "Thanks, Zuko," she said. "That means a lot." She looked up towards the stars again. "It's been a bit rough, constantly moving from place to place, never getting home."
Zuko felt a pang of sympathy. He imagined that going out and fighting all the time, hundreds – sometimes thousands of miles away from your home – was a lot like being exiled. She was far from home, away from the familiar, fighting to defend her honor and the honor of her people.
He knew what it was like to be so far away from everything you loved. He knew it was the most awful feeling in the world. And the fact that Suki was experiencing it was partially his fault.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly.
Suki glanced at him. "Why?"
He sighed, frustrated. "I just – I asked you to take the Kyoshi warriors and fight for me. I should've thought more about what that meant for you." He ran a hand through his hair, glaring at the grass. "It's just so hard, trying to anticipate what will be good for everyone," he burst out. "I try to make sure everybody's doing ok, that I'm doing what they need and what all the nations need, but I'm always messing up."
He buried his face in his hands, trying to breathe deeply. His breath was coming in small, angry hisses, and he could feel his muscles tensing with anger.
Then Suki touched his shoulder, and all the anger went out of him.
"Zuko, you're not always messing up," she said, her voice gentle. "I really admire all the things you've done in the past five years. You've worked really hard, and you've done a good job being fair, even at the risk of angering everybody else in the Fire Nation. I can tell you're trying. Everybody can. And it's not that I'm not happy to help – because I am. I think, if I was home on Kyoshi, I would feel – useless, I suppose. Like I was sitting around when people needed me."
Zuko let his hands fall and turned towards her, surprised. "But you've got to miss home a lot," he said.
"Of course I do," Suki said, dropping her hand from his shoulder. "But you've got to make sacrifices if you want to help people, no matter how much they hurt."
Zuko blinked, then smiled at her, a tremulous and slowly-growing half-grin. "That's kind of how I feel," he said. "And I'll make every sacrifice I have to to repair the damage my father did, and everyone who came before him." He hesitated. "There are some things I wouldn't want to give up, though," he said. "Like this garden." He motioned. "It helps keep me balanced. And without that – I'd be a pretty bad ruler."
"You'd be your dad," Suki said, smiling back at him.
It shouldn't have been funny – wouldn't have been funny, if she hadn't said it with such softness. It wasn't mean-spirited; it wasn't callous or cavalier. It was a joke spoken with kindness and without rancor.
It had been a long time since anyone had joked like that with him.
He smiled again, and laughed. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah I would." He paused, glancing towards the moon. "The point is, Suki," he said, "If you're tired and need to go home for a bit, you should. I'm sure Sokka's dying to visit home; you guys could take a trip there."
When he looked back at Suki, she was frowning again, biting her lip. "He's suggested that," she said slowly. "He wants to go home so badly. But..." She shook her head and lowered her gaze, ashamed. "Sokka wants to take me to the Southern Water Tribe to meet his GranGran and Pakku and spend time with Hakoda, and Katara's been pressuring me to go – but with all these little rebel groups I just don't have time. And, honestly, I don't want to go. The Southern Water Tribe is so far away, and – well, it's not that they haven't earned the right to rest. Because they have. They've suffered so much more than the rest of us – except Aang, of course. But they're busy rebuilding the Southern Water Tribe, and only a few of them are here helping to negotiate peace. I guess I feel like I need to be here, to keep fighting and protecting. I want to defend the new peace." She shook her head, nervously twisting the hem of her skirt in her hand. "But Sokka wants to go back to the Southern Water Tribe and start a new family, help out his dad, and all that."
"And you... don't want to do that?" Zuko said, raising his eyebrows. Sokka and Suki had been together a long time, and he'd just assumed they were planning to marry soon. But he realized he'd heard nothing about an engagement – a bad sign by all accounts. "I kind of thought you would, by now. I mean, you've done your time too."
Suki shook her head. "I want to keep helping," she said. "I want to be there protecting what you're trying to do. If I could do it while having a family – well, then I would. But with Sokka, I don't think that's possible. Not with what he wants right now."
Zuko sat back, watching Suki's face. "So that's why you've been fighting," he said. "I thought you guys seemed pretty off when you got here."
Suki blushed. "That obvious, huh?" She sighed and looked up at the moon. "Yes, that's why we've been fighting." She glanced at him, raising an eyebrow. "What about you and Mai?" she asked. "You guys have been fighting too."
Zuko heaved a sigh. "Yeah," he said. "A lot."
He half-smiled. "Very loudly, it seems."
Suki gave a small laugh. "Probably louder than you'd like."
Zuko lowered his head, kicking at a pebble. "Mai's just – she can be hard to deal with sometimes," he said. "She wants me to take her on little trips and spend lots and lots of time with her – not that I blame her, I mean, that's only fair – but with all my duties as Fire Lord, I just can't. She says she understands, but she doesn't really." He huffed, and steam came out of his mouth. His irritation was building, burning and angry. "She hates politics, and she hates the things I have to do because I'm Fire Lord," he continued, his voice rising a little. "She loves me, the person, but not me, the Fire Lord. And I want to stand by her and defend her, but she's constantly putting herself in danger and making herself seem like an enemy to the people. And she doesn't even care. It's like, now that she's no longer under her parents' thumb, she wants to defy anything anyone tells her to do. And I don't blame her – it's just – "
"You can't have that in a Fire Lady," Suki finished. "I get it."
Zuko sighed in relief. "Thanks," he said. "I was beginning to think I was an ass for feeling like this."
"No, you're just coming from very different perspectives," Suki said. She tilted her head, studying him intently. "Did Mai ever tell you about her experiences in prison?"
Zuko looked up, startled. "No," he said. "Why? Were they bad?"
"Well..." Suki hesitated, biting at her lower lip. "She actually had a really, really hard time. All the other prisoners treated her really badly. Some of the Kyoshi warriors told me about it. It was a really traumatic time for her, and I think she pretty much survived it by thinking about you, and spending the rest of her life with you. I think, even when she knew you would wind up being Fire Lord, she didn't really consider what that meant – just that she could be with you then, all the time. But of course it hasn't turned out like that, and that can't be easy for her."
Zuko frowned at the ground. He felt a creeping sensation of anger – with himself. He had never asked Mai about her time in prison; he had assumed it was easy, given that her uncle was the warden at Boiling Rock. But how much power had the Warden kept after prisoners had escaped? Had she even stayed at Boiling Rock for the whole of her time in prison, or had she gone somewhere else? Had Azula visited her or left her to rot? He realized that there was a whole period of Mai's life that was a blank to him – not just her time in prison, but her time during his banishment. He had never asked, and she had never told him.
What kind of fiancé was he, not to know these things?
He hung his head. "Wow," he said.
"What?" Suki asked.
"It's just..." He buried his face in his hands. "You saying that... it just makes me think there's a lot about Mai I don't even know."
He could feel Suki's eyes on him, intent and sympathetic. "Maybe you should ask her," she said.
Zuko glared into the darkness. "Maybe it's too late."
They were silent for awhile. Suki's presence was soothing; she radiated empathy and comfort, even in her own sorrow. He wished she was around more often; she seemed to have a wonderfully calming effect on him.
"It's getting late," Suki said.
Zuko looked up. "Is it?"
Suki pointed to the moon. It was starting to sink lower and lower in the sky. "Yeah, I'd say so," she said.
"Wow." Zuko chuckled. "I didn't realize so much time had passed. It... uh... it felt really nice, talking to you."
"Yeah," Suki said quietly. "It was nice talking to you too. Thank you for listening."
"Thank you for understanding," Zuko replied.
They looked at each other a few seconds too long; then, blushing, they looked away.
"Well," Zuko said, standing abruptly. "Guess I'd... uh... better get back inside."
"Me too," Suki said, also standing. "Um, sorry for attacking you. When you first – you know."
"It's ok," Zuko said, grinning. "I would've attacked me too if I'd sneaked up on me like that." He paused. "That didn't make any sense, did it?"
Suki giggled. "I know what you meant," she said.
Zuko stared hard at her. "Yeah," he murmured. "You do, don't you?"
Suki turned very red and hurriedly started for the gate. "Well," she said, too brightly, "Bed. Uh... see you around, I guess?"
"Yeah," Zuko said faintly. "See you."
He watched her disappear into the night, a floating, ethereal creature darting in and out of the moonlight. More than once she paused to look over her shoulder at him; every time he caught her eyes, and then watched her bite her lip and walk just a little faster away.
Things were different after that.
Zuko and Mai still fought with a regularity that was frightening. The fights escalated and grew louder and uglier, until Zuko began avoiding Mai altogether.
Toph told him later that Sokka and Suki were fighting too, constant bickering that kept her awake at all hours of the night. "I wish they'd shut up and take it outside," she griped at dinner, stealing some chicken from Zuko's plate. "I'll never get any sleep if they keep howling like that."
Despite her offhandedness, Zuko could tell she was worried. Katara seemed worried, too; she kept shooting dirty looks at Suki and spent a lot of time hovering concernedly over Sokka. Aang made regular efforts to restore the peace between Sokka and Suki, but none of them seemed to work.
He also made a few attempts to repair Zuko and Mai's quickly fraying relationship, but those also failed. Most of them ended in screaming, firebending, and knife throwing, with Aang throwing his hands up in frustration and leaving them to it.
It would have been awful, but Suki was there.
Every night after their first meeting in the garden, Suki and Zuko found each other in Zuko's little peace garden. There they sat together on the bench and talked about every imaginable topic. They recapped their fights with their significant others, commiserating over their mutual woes. They told each other silly stories from their childhood, laughed at stories of dates gone wrong, and told each other stupid jokes.
Best of all, though, they talked politics.
It was an enormous relief to Zuko to be able to talk to someone who was willing to discuss the war and the peace he wanted to create – someone who actually cared, and deeply. It was also interesting to hear her perspective, as she came from the Earth Nation and had traveled any number of other places.
"I talk to people from every nation, every day," she told him once. "It's amazing the variety of opinions people have. And everybody thinks they're right. People are killing each other over a war that's been done for five years. We're still trying to pick up all the pieces and make everyone friends again, but all these people can only remember what came before, and can't move forward."
"How can I fix that?" Zuko asked her, clenching his fists in frustration. "How can I change people's opinions about the Fire Nation, or change the Fire Nation's opinions about everybody else?"
Suki shrugged helplessly. "I really wish I knew," she said. "I think the only way to make it happen is to have people get used to one another, you know? Let all the nations interact as much as possible. Once they're all mixed together, they'll see that they're no different from the other people at the core."
That was fodder for a number of new policies. Zuko passed a law opening trade from every nation, and set up a huge open-air market full of vendors from every corner of the world. It took a great deal of persuasion – often monetary – to get merchants from the Earth Nation and the Water Tribes to come to the market, and even after it was established there were a few attacks on it. But those attacks were warded off, and the market was soon thriving.
Zuko also made efforts to see that immigration policies were made simpler, both for people of the Fire Nation to go elsewhere and people of other nations to come to the Fire Nation. He spent long, exhausting evenings arguing with his council of dignitaries from the other nations, and by the time he reached Suki he was frequently exhausted and angry.
It was a testament to Suki's even temper that he eventually relaxed, and never got into a fight with her.
These attempts to help people settle into a life of peace kept Zuko busy for the most part. He filled his head with politics, and did his best not to think about the wedding that was looming ever-nearer. And he was quite successful, for a time. In fact, he was so busy that he didn't notice that Mai had stopped seeking him out of her own accord – had, in fact, stopped talking about the wedding altogether.
By the time he realized what had happened, it was too late.
Before he ever saw Mai, he went to the garden to sit with Suki.
Suki was wearing Fire Nation colors that night, a sweeping and dramatic red gown with golden embroidery. She had always, to Zuko's mind, looked especially good in red.
He sat down next to her with a happy sigh. "So the immigration policies finally got passed," he said.
"That's great," Suki said, smiling at him. "I'm so glad they finally went through. That's a good step in the right direction."
"It's going to be good," Zuko said, leaning back on the bench and staring up at the sky. "All the cities of the world, filled up with people from every single nation – all the cultures will blend and we'll be friends again."
"You'd think they could look at all of us in the gang and see how happy we are," Suki remarked, tilting her head and also staring at the sky. "I mean, look at us – you, the Fire Lord, are friends with people from every nation – even one that doesn't exist anymore. That's a pretty big deal. It doesn't seem to happen often enough."
"It will, though," Zuko said. "I really think it will."
They were silent for awhile, just staring at the sky. "One of my warriors is dating a Fire Nation guy," she said, suddenly. "She told me he took her out to a restaurant in town, even though she was wearing Earth Nation colors. She said people kept giving them nasty looks, and somebody even told him he was a traitor to his nation. But he didn't care. They're still dating." She sighed wistfully. "We need more of that."
Zuko glanced sharply at her. There was something about the tone of her voice... "Yeah," Zuko said, picturing the couple. "Yeah, we really do."
"Because if more people from other nations dated," Suki said, "They'd have kids who wouldn't care about the different Nations. And eventually, it'll just be acceptable, people getting married from across the nations, all living together."
Zuko mulled over that for awhile. It was a pretty picture, but even though it was what he wanted, he had a hard time imagining what it would like. He tried to picture Royal Caldera city full of people from other nations, cheerfully waving to one another – but Earth Nation and Water Tribe members looked intimidated by the architecture, everything feeling so Fire Nation.
"What?" Suki asked. "You suddenly seem sad."
"It's just – " Zuko turned to her. She was staring at him intently, her eyes so warm and caring that for an instant his heart stopped. "Uh," he stuttered, quickly looking away again. "It's just that I'm having a hard time picturing people from other nations being comfortable here. I mean, it's so... Fire Nation."
"Well, that'd be true for Fire Nation immigrants and Water Tribe people if they went to Ba Sing Se," Suki said. "Or if Earth Nation and Fire Nation people went to the Northern or Southern Water Tribes. Everybody's going to have to adjust."
"I know," Zuko said glumly. "But it'll be more difficult that way. I just wish we could start over, make a place for the nations to mingle that actually looked like it belonged to everyone."
Suki sat up very straight. "Zuko," she said, "That's brilliant."
Zuko blinked at her, bewildered. "What?"
"You could build a city," she said, her voice climbing with excitement. "You could build a whole new city, with the help of people from all the other nations, and say that it belongs to everybody! That way everyone would be comfortable. It'd be a great sign of the new era, and it'd be a clean slate – not a city destroyed by war, not a city belonging to one culture, but a city that belongs to everyone!"
Zuko also straightened, his eyes shining. "Suki, that's a great idea!" he said. "That may be the best idea we've had yet."
Suki giggled in delight. "Together, we're unstoppable," she said, reaching out and grabbing his hand. "We'll bring peace to this place yet."
For an instant, he stared at their entwined fingers, surprised. Then he closed his fingers more tightly around hers and smiled at her. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah we will."
When he left the garden that night, Suki had already gone ahead of him, humming cheerfully to herself.
He had sat alone, contemplative and worried.
Holding Suki's hand had felt far too good. What had she meant, that together they were unstoppable? Had she and Sokka broken up, or were they still together? Was it wrong of him to hope they would break up?
And what about Mai? Why hadn't he been thinking about Mai much these days?
Mai would never have come up with the idea of this new city. She would've told him that immigrants could deal with their new situations. She wouldn't have come up with the idea to help implement immigration policies in the first place. She would have made some sarcastic joke and moved on.
Mai was jaded in the worst kind of way; but Zuko didn't need 'jaded' right now, couldn't afford to let himself feel that way. He needed to be an idealist. He needed to think that things could work out. Because if he didn't believe it, nobody else would.
And he wouldn't believe it if his Fire Lady didn't believe it, either.
Slowly he made his way out of the garden, frowning thoughtfully. He kicked at a few stray rocks as he made his way into the shadow of a tree, hands folded behind his back. He paused, bent to lightly pet a sleeping turtleduck, and rose –
To find Mai standing in front of him.
He inhaled sharply. "Holy – for fuck's sake, Mai, don't do that," he snapped, straightening. "I thought you were trying to kill me."
"I'm thinking about it very seriously," Mai said flatly.
Zuko winced. "Uh... why?" he asked.
But he knew why. And she knew he knew.
"Let's not play stupid games, Zuko," Mai said. She sounded tired, like all her anger had passed through her already. "We've been fighting. Well, we were fighting until we started avoiding one another. Now we haven't really talked in days, and you've been pretty busy, it seems." She jerked her head in the direction of the garden. "Got something you want to tell me?"
Zuko blinked, then turned a hideous shade of red. "No," he gasped. "No, Mai, it isn't like that – we haven't – we're just talking."
Mai closed her eyes tightly. "For now," she said.
Zuko opened his mouth to protest, but no words came out.
"Look," Mai said, "I don't want to spend all my time waiting for you to tell me to get lost. I'd rather have my cry and be able to move on with life if you're going to end this, so if you are, do it now."
Zuko stared at her. He'd expected her to look angry, but she merely looked unbearably sad. He couldn't remember a time he'd seen Mai so disheartened.
He wanted to tell her that he loved her. He wanted to tell her that he was grateful that she'd saved his life all those years ago, grateful that she loved him enough to defy Azula. He wanted to tell her that she was funny and smart and beautiful and everything else. He wanted to say that it wasn't her, it was him. He wanted to ask her to still be friends, to come visit him, to hang around and maybe fight for him or something if she wasn't going to marry him. He wanted to tell her life would be hard without her. He wanted to explain sacrifices and what he needed as Fire Lord.
But he knew she wouldn't care, and that hearing would only make it worse.
"Mai," he said quietly.
She started to turn on her heel and walk away.
"Don't." He reached out and grabbed her wrist. "Listen," he said. "I care about you. A lot. More than I've ever cared about anybody before. But – but I need someone who's ok with all the political things I have to do. And Mai – you're just not."
She didn't look at him. "Is that all?" she asked coldly.
He gnawed at his lip. He felt like he was going to cry, and he hated himself for it. Shouldn't she be the one crying, the one throwing a fit? But there she was, hand in his, frozen like a statue.
She couldn't look at him, though. That was how he knew it hurt her, too.
He bent and gently kissed her hand. "I'm sorry," he said.
She ripped her hand free of his grasp. "Yeah," she said. "I'm sure you are."
The next morning she was gone, and everybody knew.
She had not, however, left alone. Sokka also appeared to be missing. Katara hadn't been able to find him anywhere, and Toph said she couldn't find him either.
Suki's eyes were red-rimmed from crying, but she quietly told them that she had no idea where he'd gotten to, either. "He just left," she said.
"Were you guys fighting?" Katara demanded. "Did you tell him to get lost or something?"
"I didn't even talk to him," Suki admitted meekly.
Zuko looked up from his chair at the table. He'd been intently studying the wood grain before, tracing the pattern with exhausted eyes. "Mai and I fought," he said dully. "We broke off the engagement."
All action froze. Katara gasped; Aang looked stunned; Iroh and Toph exchanged glances.
He looked across the table to where Suki sat and met her eyes. She looked back at him, her mouth opening for a few seconds, then closing again. She sat back in her chair, slumped, and began to chew at a nail, obviously disconcerted.
"Why?" Katara finally managed. "I mean, I know you guys were fighting, but – "
"It needed to end," Zuko said, standing. "It just... wasn't meant to happen."
He pushed his chair back and started for the door.
"Zuko..." Iroh called after him.
Zuko stopped. His uncle's voice was gentle, worried. He looked over his shoulder.
"Are you all right?" Iroh asked, studying Zuko with a concerned frown.
Zuko glanced towards Suki again. She hadn't even been looking, but she still blushed. "I'll be fine," he said. "I just need a little time."
He left them to whisper, and went to the garden to think.
He'd been sitting in the garden an hour when Suki finally appeared.
She approached on silent feet, but the gate made noise as it swung open. Zuko glanced idly over his shoulder, even though he already knew who it was. Suki's dress was beautiful once again – green with bright red flowers. He glanced towards the flower in his hand and thought it would match the dress well.
"It was because of me, wasn't it?" Suki burst out. Zuko was so startled that he dropped the flower. "Zuko, I'm so sorry. I didn't meant to make things seem so – I mean, I didn't want Mai to think – "
"It's not your fault," Zuko interrupted, rising and turning to face her. His hands were covered in dirt; he'd been working in the soil for the better part of the hour he'd been away. "I think, the way things were going... well, it would probably have ended anyway. Or else it wouldn't have ended, and we both would have been damn unhappy." He bit his lip, studying her carefully. "What about Sokka?" he asked. "Is that a result of our talks?"
Suki sighed, approaching him slowly. "I don't know," she said. "When I woke up this morning, he was just – gone. No note, nothing."
Zuko nodded slowly. "It seems a bit odd that he would disappear at the same time Mai did," he noted.
Suki sighed again. "Yes, I noticed that too," she said. "Do you think they left together?"
"You mean in an affair kind of sense?" Zuko asked. "No. Mai was pretty devastated last night. So was I, if I'm being honest." He sat on the bench, folding his dirty hands in his lap and frowning into space. "It's hard picturing life without Mai," he said. "She saved my life, defended my name and my honor when nobody else would. I really did love her," he added, faintly.
"I know," Suki said. Cautiously, she sat beside him, reaching out for his hand. "I know you did."
Zuko squeezed her fingers and held them tightly in his, unwilling to let go. "Sokka probably saw she was leaving and decided to follow her," he said. "He probably just wanted to make sure she was ok. He's a friendly kind of guy; he'd do something like that."
"Yeah," Suki said, withdrawing her fingers quite suddenly from Zuko's. "He would, wouldn't he?"
Zuko turned to her, wounded. "I'm sorry, did I say something –?"
"No, no," Suki said, turning to him hurriedly. "No, it's just that – well... there have been rumors. About Sokka. And his particular brand of friendly."
Zuko raised his one good eyebrow. His scar tissue twitched where there was once an eyebrow. "Whoa," he said. "You're not implying... you don't think he..."
"Some of the girls have been telling me that Ty Lee has been very flirty with him lately," Suki said, her voice shaking. "More so than any girl should be with someone else's boyfriend. And they say he's been pretty friendly back."
Zuko tried to picture Sokka not being friendly to people he liked. He knew Sokka could dislike people enormously, having been a victim of Sokka's enmity in the past, but he also knew that Sokka was one of the most forgiving and friendly guys ever to be born. "Sokka's just like that, though, isn't he?" he said.
Suki clenched her fists. "Not this friendly," she said. "Not holding hands and kissing on the cheek friendly."
Zuko had to concede that. "That might just be Ty Lee, though," he said. "Ty Lee... she's kind of touchy-feely. With everyone, but especially with guys she likes. Which is pretty much every guy she's ever met, including me."
Suki turned to him with a raised eyebrow. "You dated Ty Lee?" she asked.
He blushed. "I guess, kind of," he said. "When we were kids. I don't know if it really counts." He looked her over curiously. "I just... Suki, I can't see Sokka doing that to you."
Suki slumped. "I know," she muttered. "Neither can I. But we've been fighting so much recently..." She hung her head. "I guess it would be easier to believe he cheated than to believe we're just not getting along anymore. At least I could blame him then instead of me."
Zuko was silent. He wondered if Mai had told Sokka about Suki's trips to the garden, or if Sokka already knew. And if he did – was he casting the same blame on Suki that Suki was trying to put on him?
"It just makes me so sad," Suki said, and when Zuko looked over at her, he realized she was wiping away tears. "He's such a sweet guy. He's wonderful, and he saved my life at Boiling Rock. It makes me feel so guilty for feeling... trapped, I guess."
Zuko nodded slowly. "Mai saved me, too," he murmured. "She saved all of us. She thought she was going to die, but she was still happy to do it – for me." He ran a hand over his eyes. "Maybe I was stupid to call off the engagement."
They sat in silence for a long time, staring in opposite directions. Zuko focused on his vegetable garden; it was looking a little sad. He'd been so busy talking to Suki that he'd neglected it. He stood and went over to the garden bed, kneeling and beginning to pull weeds.
Quietly, Suki stood and followed him, also dropping down to her knees and beginning to pull weeds. They worked in companionable silence for awhile, their thoughts their own.
Finally, Suki spoke. "Do you think Sokka or Mai will come back?"
Zuko sat back on his heels and surveyed their handiwork. The garden looked good, cleared almost entirely of the weeds that had been growing. A little water, and the vegetables would be well on their way to growing healthily again. "Sokka probably will," Zuko said. "But Mai? I don't know. She probably needs to be away for awhile. It'd be better if she was, probably. That way we both have some time to think about things."
Suki slowly brushed dirt from her hands, staring at the ground. "So you're thinking of staying with her, then," she said quietly.
Zuko shook his head. "No," he said. "Not right now. We just – " He scooped up some weeds and twisted them in his fingers, staring blankly at them. "We need different things," he finished.
He brushed the dirt off his hands and stood up slowly. He felt an unbearably heavy sadness settling in the pit of his stomach, memories of all that had been and all that he had thought would come to be flickering through his mind. He had thought love wouldn't be this complicated. Was it possible to love someone and still not want to be with them?
He still loved Mai, unequivocally and without question. He felt raw and broken without her, anger and sadness mixing and welling inside him. But he also believed that this was what had to happen – that things couldn't stay as they had been without inflicting suffering on both himself and Mai.
"Does it hurt?" Suki asked. "Being broken up with her?"
He glanced at her, surprised. He looked into her eyes and saw anxiety, worry, anguish, hope. He wished he could tell her it was easy, that he'd be moving on within the week. But he knew it would be a lie.
"Yeah," he said. "It does. A lot."
Suki bit her lip and jerked her head in the semblance of a nod. She clenched and unclenched her fingers as she began to walk past him, her head lowered. Zuko's gaze followed her as she started for the gate. "Suki," he said.
She stopped and turned to him, her eyes full of questions.
Zuko drew in a deep breath. "You need to do what's best for you and Sokka," he said. "Even if it hurts. I... I feel like that's what I did. With Mai, I mean. I love her, but we keep fighting and misunderstanding one another. And how can either of us be happy if that's the case?" He shrugged. "If you're unhappy, and you feel like you're making Sokka unhappy, maybe... maybe it should end."
She bit her lip and looked down at the ground. "Zuko," she said. "I – it's not just him."
Zuko frowned. "What do you mean?"
She looked up at him, twisting her hands in front of her. "I... I like you, Zuko," she said, blushing bright red. "I mean, I really – I care about you. And I care about your causes, and all the things you're fighting for. It's just – " She closed her eyes in frustration. "I sound like an idiot," she snapped, clenching her fists.
Zuko half-smiled. "Suki," he said. "I like you too."
She opened her eyes, her mouth falling open in surprise.
"But," Zuko said, raising a hand. "We're both just really confused right now. And I think it'd be better if – if we gave ourselves time to... to move on."
Suki nodded slowly. "I think that's a good idea," she said softly.
They stood there awkwardly, avoiding each other's eyes. Finally, Zuko ran a hand through his hair and started, "Um... well... I guess I'd better – "
Suki hurled herself at him and threw her arms around his neck, lightly kissing him on the cheek. "Thank you, Zuko," she whispered in his ear.
Uncertainly, he patted her back. "Uh – what for?" he questioned.
"For listening to me," Suki said, tightening her grip. "For understanding. For being the fantastic Fire Lord you are. Just – thank you."
He half-smiled again, and gently hugged her back. "Thanks for keeping me sane, Suki," he murmured. "You... you helped me a lot."
He felt Suki smile against his neck; then she slipped out of his arms and ran light-footed back towards the palace.
Zuko let her go, and wondered at the tangle of confused feelings in his chest.
At this point, the situation's out of control
I never meant to hurt her, but I gotta let her go
And if she may not understand it, why all of this is going on
I tried, I tried to fight it, but the feeling's just too strong