It's finally Tuesday afternoon, and I'm in more anxiety than ever. I'm having one of those days that seem to drag on even more than usual because the universe hates me and knows I've been waiting for something.
Yeah, that kind of day.
When the last bell finally rings, I make it to my locker and out to the parking lot in record time. Then I remind myself to slow down. It's not like I want to just wait out by his car while he takes his time. So I reduce my pace to a comfortable walk and begin to look around. Why am I so excited, anyway? Because of the pictures? How mysterious Zuko acted when talking about them? Please. Zuko's whole excistence is a mystery to me. But then again, I don't have much patience with figuring him out, either.
And as if the universe decides I've suffered enough, here he comes now, walking that effortless bad-boy walk that I have memorized so well.
I turn the other way and slow down even more to stay unnoticed while letting him make it to the car before me. Once I'm sure he's there, I rest my gaze on the sleek, black vehicle and let myself go a little faster.
"Hey," Zuko smiles, still leaning against the door on the passenger's side, arms crossed.
He takes the keys out of his pocket in a complicated-looking way, then lets his other hand brush over the small of my back while I open the door and he walks around to the other side. It's impossible to ignore the chill that runs down my spine, but at least I can hide my pleasure until we reach the house.
"Why did you do that?"
"Come on Mai; just look at them."
Standing barely a foot into the darkroom, I am no longer pleased. In fact, I want to hit him.
I step up to the pictures, sighing, when he doesn't respond. It's easy to tell that he had taken these when I fell asleep against that tree. I have to admit, besides that fact that I hate having my picture taken, these are really good. The sun is at just the right angle so everything looks like it's glowing, and the breeze gives it a late-summer look even though it's April.
"What were you thinking when you took these?" I ask, my voice softer this time.
"I think it's fairly obvious," he murmurs, coming to stand next to me. I turn to mirror his position, my body fully facing his.
"Not even a little bit?"
"All I get is that you like taking pictures of sleeping people."
"Just some," he smiles.
I watch as he takes a deep breath, looking down at one hand. I hide my amusement when I see the smudged black handwriting on the palm of it. Before he can say anything, I take that hand, holding it up between us. He opens his mouth to object.
"No cheesy practiced sentences," I say, smirking.
"Then I guess I just can't tell you."
I raise my eyebrows.
I realize now that we had been stepping closer together with every statement. But I don't care. His lips grow into a smirk too, and his head leans down, getting closer and closer to mine…
"Zuko?" A deep, unfamiliar voice interrupts us, and we snap into straight positions, keeping our bodies at least a foot away from each other.
"Dad? What're you doing home?" Zuko asks, his confusion not nearly as clear in his words as the embarrassment. His father narrows his eyes, his seemingly permanent frown deepening.
"My business is mine and mine alone." He says it very simply, but with just enough ice to make me internally cringe. Zuko doesn't answer, so the man steps in from the doorway. "Well, aren't you going to introduce me to your girlfriend?"
"…Right. This is Mai." I notice how he hesitates on account of his father's cold tone, but doesn't refuse the term girlfriend.
"Mai," he nods. Then he looks at me thoughtfully. "You seem strangely familiar, but I don't believe we've met."
"My dad is Lee Konata. Maybe you know him," I suggest in a bored tone, speaking for the first time since he cut us off.
"Ah, yes. You two look alike. Governor Konata." Then, quietly, like it was more to himself than anyone else, "I certainly hope he is a better father than leader."
I narrow my eyes at him but say nothing. If my dad really does parent better than he governs, I don't know how he still has his job.
"Dad," Zuko says, a warning in his golden eyes.
"Don't try defying me again, Zuko. You'd only be making things worse for yourself."
While his eyes cloud with memories, his hand inches up to his left shoulder, the one that had been bothering him that Saturday, and everything finally clicks.
"You could've told me, you know. I wouldn't have reported it or anything."
I say this to a very pathetic-looking Zuko across the lunch table. I am beyond annoyed. Does he not trust me?
"I know, just…I was scared. I was scared you'd be scared. And that we couldn't…if you knew, you wouldn't…"
"…Wouldn't like you?" I guess. He nods, receiving a sigh from me. "I don't care about your parents, Zuko. My feelings toward them are totally unattached to my feelings for you." I almost blush a bit at my blunt confession, but he doesn't seem to notice – does he ever? – so I go on. "And besides, if that's your dad, your mom can't be that bad…is she?"
"Well, she wasn't. She was great, actually. She died of some disease when I was little."
"What disease?" I ask, almost whispering. We're leaning towards each other now. He shakes his head, his voice even smaller than mine when he answers.
"We still don't know."
"Sorry," I mumble hesitantly. "And your scar…"
"It was him. For a while after my mom died, he was depressed, and now he's hooked on alcohol. His favorite thing to hit, burn, kick – whatever – was always me. Still is."
"What about Azula?"
He snorts. "She's daddy's little girl. Too perfect to even go near when he's drunk."
I bite my bottom lip, suddenly feeling sorry for him. All this time I thought his scar was just a stupid mistake he'd made. And I understand why he didn't want to tell me. He didn't want to be rejected again.
"Well, she's not so perfect anymore," I say, trying to change the subject a bit. I know Zuko's just naturally not a happy person, but this was too gloomy a setting for me to resist attempting to make him feel better.
And it's true, too. I've seen Azula staring at him with that wistful look in her eyes, that new hunger. She's jealous that all the people she now hates – her brother, her ex-boyfriend, and her two ex-best friends – are reasonably happy while, for once, she's miserable.
"True," he answers. "She hasn't insulted me in like a week. Actually, she's barely spoken to anyone since Jet dumped her." He stops, seeing me looking over at her. "What?"
"Maybe I sound paranoid, but I can't help feeling like she's up to something.
Zuko pauses before speaking, looking at me carefully.
"You're right. You sound totally paranoid." I sigh. "Come on, Mai, she's not up to anything."
I keep my disagreement to myself, taking out my lunch. I know Azula. I know every wicked part of her brain. If there's one thing she can't stand, it's being betrayed. She's always been in-control, ruling from her pyramid of cheerleaders. And if someone takes her spot at the top, she has to knock them down before getting back in place.
She wants revenge. And Azula always gets what she wants.
A/N – You all know it's true. ;) So again, sorry about how short and uneventful this chapter was. It's basically a set-up for what I have planned. This is almost where the plot really kicks in. Don't give up on me just yet! Also, I apologize for how long it's been. I was recently hospitalized for a week, then I had lots of stuff to make up for school, and then my usual mountain of homework. Not that that's any excuse, but it's some of the reason for the delay. I love you guys and I love your reviews. :)