Running Interference

 

Part Two

 

Zuko knew his headache was going to get worse the second he stepped outside of the council room.

Peace negotiations were not exactly easy. It was a delicate balance to maintain - between making concessions in regards to repairations and still asserting the Fire Nation's autonomy. The Fire Nation wasn't defeated, precisely, and he wasn't a puppet ruler put in place to serve the Avatar. He needed to establish that he wasn't going to bend over backwards at every little request. But it was equally important to establish that the Fire Nation acknowledged its mistakes and was willing to take responsibility.

Sometimes it was really difficult to keep his temper in line.

Mai had been helpful there. Zuko was more grateful for her presence than she could ever know. In addition to managing the hundreds - no, thousands - of tiny details that were involved in the running of a nation, including delegating responsibility and ensuring that nothing significant escaped his notice... she somehow also managed to keep him sane. He wasn't entirely sure how she did it, but he was sure that he'd never manage without her.

He had that on his mind almost before the meeting concluded - Mai's unquestioning loyalty and how lucky he was to have her. Mostly, though, he was thinking about Mai's slender arms, the slight curve of her hips, the way she fit into his arms, the way she reacted when he kissed that spot at the corner of her jaw...

Hastily formed plans of retreating to her chambers and having dinner delivered to them were interrupted, however, when he stepped through the door and was treated to the site of the Avatar standing directly opposite, a scroll clutched tightly in his hand and his eyes already fixed on Zuko pleadingly.

The new Fire Lord resisted the urge to roll his eyes ceilingward in despair. Well, there goes the evening...

But Aang had done a lot for him, he reminded himself. It would be ungrateful to try to blow whatever this was off. It helped if he kept telling himself that and didn't let his thoughts wander back to Mai and how she looked into his eyes when he - right. Anyway. "What is it?" he asked, doing his best not to sound too put-out as he approached his friend.

"I need to ask you something." Was it his imagination, or did Aang have a bit of a wild look in his eyes? Like he was fighting off panic or something. "Is there somewhere we can go talk?"

There went the last bit of hope for his evening. Zuko bit back a sigh. "Sure," he agreed, and figured he'd done a pretty good job of not letting his lack of enthusiasm show in his voice. "This way."



Zuko regarded the scroll Aang had handed him blankly. "This is a list of girls' names," he pointed out, wondering if maybe the younger boy had somehow mixed it up with something else.

"Yeah, I know." Aang sank down onto the plush divan in Zuko's chambers with a long sigh.

It was difficult to resist the urge to throttle him. "Why am I reading a list of girls' names?"

"Because!" Abruptly Aang was on his feet again; he paced across the room with a sort of restless energy that could only come from having his nerves worn to the fray. Zuko was familiar with that feeling. "I just had a meeting with the Earth Sages. We were supposed to be talking about preserving Air Nomad culture," he added, clearly aggravated. "But Sokka made a comment about 'breeding' - I still don't know why - and now I get this!" He flung both hands in the air.

"A list of girls' names," Zuko repeated, flatly. Hopefully his tone would be enough to convey just how absurd that was.

"Not just any girls." Aang waved his hand at the scroll, and then let it flop down to his side again in agitation. "Those girls are supposedly my 'best prospects' for 'fulfilling my duty' of completely repopulating the Air Nomads. By myself!" He slumped back onto the divan again, covering his face with both hands. "I really wish this was a bad dream..."

"Oh." Now the panic made sense. Zuko looked from the scroll to the Avatar and back again, not really sure what to say. How could anyone be expected to react well to something like that? "Uh... well... From the size of this list, I wouldn't exactly say 'by yourself' is how they expect you to do it."

"That's even worse!" Aang's head shot back up; the look on his face had remarkable similarity to the look one might see on a cornered animal. "Look at that thing! They can't really expect me to... you know" - his face went a bit red at that - "with all of those girls! That - that would just be - !"

"
Calm down," Zuko cut him off. His voice might've been just a bit too sharp, but somehow he had a feeling that was what Aang needed just then. He couldn't even imagine being thirteen again and being presented with a list of 'eligible' young ladies to father children onto. In fact, he couldn't imagine being expected to father children at thirteen, period. He still panicked at the thought of fathering children. "They can't expect you to get all of these girls pregnant" - the thought was staggering - "so what they probably want is for you to just pick one." And hop into bed with her about five seconds after, his mind finished for him.

It was probably not wise to repeat that thought out loud.

"But I already have picked the girl I want to be with!" Aang's expression was a mixture of earnest and despairing - it was a very strange combination. "I love her! We've been through so much... and I thought for a while we might never be together." He hunched his shoulders briefly as if in memory of something unhappy, then straightened again and continued. "But now we are and everything's perfect. And then this happens!" He slouched down even further into the divan, despondantly.

"Why should it be a big deal if you've already got someone?" Zuko was having a hard time understanding that part. "She probably wants kids some day - most girls do. Just tell the Sages you've already got a girlfriend and they're just going to have to wait until she's ready to let you" - He coughed, feeling a bit awkward about it - "well, you know. That's not unreasonable, is it?"

"Maybe." Aang didn't sound too optimistic. "But there's just one problem. Take a look at that list again."

"What?" Zuko picked up the list and quickly scanned through it. "I don't see - oh." His eyes widened as what he was seeing - or wasn't seeing - registered. "I see the problem."

"Yeah." Aang pushed himself forward, resting his arms on his knees as he stared almost furiously at the floor. "I checked it over three times, thinking there was some mistake, but it's not. Katara's name isn't on there."

Zuko tried to imagine his own reaction if someone had handed him a list of eligible young ladies to pick a prospective mate from and Mai's name wasn't present. It wasn't a pretty picture. "But these are just suggestions, right? I mean, there shouldn't be any reason you can't go out with someone who's not on the list."

"That's what I thought too," the younger boy admitted, glumly. "And I told them about Katara. And they said that since Katara's a waterbender, there's just as much chance she'd have kids who are waterbenders, too. Then they said I shouldn't make up my mind until I've met all of their 'prospects' and given them a fair chance." When he looked up, his eyes had more of a panicked look than ever. "What am I gonna do!? When Katara finds out..."

That would probably go downhill pretty fast. Katara had a nasty temper sometimes, and something like this was bound to set it off. Zuko scratched his head. "Yeah, you're pretty much dead meat," he replied.

"Thanks..." There was an edge of bitterness in Aang's voice; he frowned at Zuko. "That helps a lot."

"Well, what do you want me to do?" Zuko responded, just a bit defensively. "I don't know anything about making babies!" The words were only just out of his mouth when he realized what it sounded like. "I mean, I do know how to do it," he ammended, hastily. "I"m, uh, pretty familiar with that part of it. I just don't get the part that decides whether or not the kid is going to be any kind of bender."

"Yeah, neither do I." Aang let out an agrieved sigh. "I just don't know what I'm gonna do! The Sages are going to start throwing these girls at me no matter what I say, and there's no way Katara's not going to notice. We live in the same house, for crying out loud!"

"That does make it difficult to hide." Zuko frowned thoughtfully. If only there was some way... Wait. "Hey, I think I've got it!" It was just so simple - he couldn't help but smile, just a little. "If it's living in the same place that causes the problem, why don't you just live somewhere else for a while?"

Aang's eyes widened a little; he sat up a bit straighter in his seat as the idea sunk in. "That could work," he admitted, seeming to brighten up a bit. Then he frowned again. "But where would I stay?"

"You could stay here." It probably wouldn't hurt anything. In fact, it might even work in Zuko's favor; by offering his rooms to the Avatar, he had a completely reasonable excuse to spend every night in Mai's rooms. The more he thought of it, the better he liked it. "It's not like your friends come to the palace much anyway. And there are plenty of guards around to take care of any girls that get too... agressive."

"Stay here? In your rooms? Are you sure that's okay?" Aang already looked more optimistic at the prospect; there was a certain hope in his expression. "I mean, I wouldn't get in your way or anything, would I?"

"Yeah, of course it's okay." Zuko felt enormously pleased with himself for having worked all of that out. And in record time, too - it hadn't even taken up the majority of his evening. "I'll just stay in Mai's room."

"That's great - thanks, Zuko!" Aang propelled himself from his seat smoothly and clapped the Fire Lord's shoulder enthusiastically. "You're a life savor," he added fervently.

Knowing Katara, Zuko figured he could probably take that literally. He grinned. "No problem."

"But shouldn't you ask Mai first?" Aang asked, suddenly looking less relieved and more worried. "What if she says no?"

"Don't worry about it," Zuko told him confidently. "There's no way she'd say no. What reason could she possibly have for that?"



"You're kidding, right?"

Out of all the reactions Zuko might've expected, this one hadn't been among them. He returned his girlfriend's wry stare with some confusion. "What's the problem?"

"Zuko," she sighed, and rolled her eyes upward, "I love you, but you have a bad habit of not paying attention sometimes. Do you remember when we first arrived back in Ba Sing Se after your coronation?"

"Yes," he answered, without thinking, and then ammended with, "sort of. It was a long time ago. What's this got to do with - ?"

"I'm coming to that." She regarded him steadily, as if expecting something to come back to him that would explain her refusal. "Do you remember the guard explaining how men and women are housed here in the palace?"

Zuko thought back - and then the conversation came back to him. He slumped, letting out a low groan.

"Unmarried men and women don't share quarters," Mai pointed out, unnecessarily. "And it's a little discourteous to disrespect our host's customs. You can't stay here."

"I'm here all the time anyway." It seemed so useless - in the Fire Nation, there wouldn't have been such outrage over such a technicality. "What's the difference if I happen to sleep in here too? We're already doing everything else together."

She raised an eyebrow at him, and he realized he was beginning to whine. "All right, all right, I get it. No sharing quarters." It had been such a good idea. "Aang's going to have to sleep on my couch."

Mai smiled, looking faintly amused. "Well, I'm sure that's a sacrifice you won't have much trouble making," she said, turning to move toward the bed. She looked back over her shoulder at him. "Since you're here all the time anyway, it shouldn't bother you."

That was true. Zuko grinned, wordlessly accepting her invitation and catching up in time to encase her in his arms before they lowered themselves onto the cushions. "How come you're always right about everything?"

"I guess I'm just naturally gifted." She gave him that look - the one that weakened his knees - and slid a lingering hand over his face. "And it helps that you're always looking for answers that are easy to come up with."

"What, are you saying I'm not smart enough to figure that out?" He kissed her, slow and lazy. Mai's lips were warm, welcoming. Like her, much as she did her best to hide it. Zuko breathed in her familiar scent, already feeling intoxicated. She did this to him every time.

"No," she answered when he pulled back, the slightest hint of a smirk lingering about her mouth. Zuko had trouble taking his eyes from it. "You just make things more difficult than they have to be." She shifted, drawing him closer. "No more talking."

He was more than happy to oblige her there.



"Explain to me again why I need to get involved in this." Zuko frowned at Aang.

"I told you." The Avatar didn't seem intimidated by his dangerous expression; if anything, he seemed to have the impression that Zuko just didn't understand what was going on - which was even more irritating than his assumption that Zuko would just passively go along with the plan he'd come up with. "I need an excuse to leave the house. Otherwise, the others are going to suspect something. So I'll just sneak back into my room and act like I was there all along, and you come in and give them the story I came up with. Perfect, right?"

Zuko didn't bother suppressing his impatient sigh. 'Perfect' was not the word he would use to describe Aang's half-baked story about secret meetings regarding a hunt for pirates. But he wasn't going to waste time arguing about it. "Toph is going to expose us both as liars before I've said two words," he pointed out, instead.

"I explained everything to Toph. She knows how to keep a secret." Aang rubbed the back of his head, looking a bit sheepish. "Actually, she pretty much said she couldn't wait to see what happened when it all fell apart, but anyway... Yeah. She won't say anything."

Zuko sighed again, rolling his eyes to the morning sky and wondering what he did to deserve this. "Fine."

"
Great! I'll be in my room. Just ask for me." Aang airbended himself a scooter and flew off. "Thanks, Zuko!"

"You owe me." And he wasn't about to use the stupid pirate story, either. Ideas were already forming in Zuko's head when he walked up to the front door of the Avatar's house.

"Zuko!" It was Katara who opened the door - she looked surprised to see him. "You need something, or just here for a visit?"

"Tell me you brought more of those pastries!" Sokka called from across the room.

"Sorry." Zuko cast a quick gaze at Toph, who sat at the table with a mug of something warm in her hands. She sipped at it without concern, not looking at him. "I'm looking for Aang. Is he around?"

"Yeah, probably." Sokka slumped back into his seat, clearly losing interest. "Katara would know."

"Sokka!" Her cheeks reddened; she glared at her brother.

"What? It's true."

Katara shook her head, and offered Zuko a bit of an apologetic smile. "I think he's in his room. Just a moment," she added, moving down the hall that led to the bedrooms.

"So, Zuko." Toph unnerringly turned her face directly towards him. It was really unsettling sometimes how she did that. She smirked a little. "How's Mai?"

"Buh!" Sokka glared at the girl for no reason at all.

"Uh... fine." Zuko wasn't sure why the question caused such a reaction. "Why?"

"Oh, nothing. Just curious." She smiled with a certain satisfaction. "Same as - say - a month ago?"

He stared at her blankly. "I... guess."

"GAH! Don't wanna know! Don't wanna know!" Sokka covered up his ears with his hands, looking ready to explode. "LA LA LA... can't hear you..."

Zuko suspected he was being used as fodder for this little joke, but he wasn't really sure how.

"Hey, Zuko!" Aang's entrance spared him the trouble of trying to figure it out. The Avatar smiled brightly at him. "You need me for something?"

"Not exactly." Zuko did his best to maintain a straight face. "Actually, the truth is, I've received requests from the Sages to have some... tests... performed on you. Pretty sensitive tests."

The look on Aang's face was priceless. From off to the side, Toph made a suspicious coughing sound.

"What sort of tests?" Katara asked, a bit suspiciously.

"Oh, you know." Zuko waved a hand vaguely. "Making sure he's fit to father children, checking for impotence... the usual tests. It's pretty embarassing, actually. He's going to have to stay at the palace."

"Ooh. That's harsh, Aang." Sokka looked sympathetic for all of two seconds, then smiled. "Good luck with that."

"Yeah... tests, huh?" Aang stared hard at Zuko, nonplussed. "You sure it's tests? It's not a secret meeting or anything?"

"Nope." Zuko kept his expression neutral. "I'm pretty sure it's tests. Better grab your things." He allowed himself a bit of a smile then. "I have a feeling you'll be getting nice and personal with those Sages for the next few days, so you'll want to make yourself comfortable at the palace."

That was the point when Toph gave in and burst into howls of laughter, one of her fists pounding on the table uncontrollably.



"Did you really have to do that?" Aang's expression was sour; he held himself a bit stiffly as he kept pace with Zuko.

Zuko regarded him without sympathy. "Sorry," he responded, not even attempting to make his voice sound sincere. "But your pirate story stunk. At least mine will guarantee you don't have any unexpected visitors."

"It also means I can't go and visit them." Aang sighed, shoulders drooping somewhat. "I wonder how long this is going to go on for..."

"How many girls can you meet in a day?" Zuko shrugged. "I saw about thirty names. If you only meet one girl per day, it'll take you a month."

"A month?" Aang groaned, slapping a hand to his face in an almost comical show of despair. "That's practically forever!"

Zuko resisted the urge to sigh - again. Something about dealing with the Avatar... "So make sure you meet more than one a day. You haven't got anything else to do, have you?"

"Not unless the Sages decide they're willing to talk about Air Nomad culture again." Aang's tone made it clear how he felt about the interruption. "This is all just so stupid!"

"It's not that stupid when you stop to think about it," Zuko pointed out. "The world's going to need more airbenders at some point. Otherwise the Avatar cycle will break when it makes its way to air again."

"Yeah, but that's not going to be for hundreds of years!" Aang protested. "Don't you think they can afford to at least give me a few years to get used to the idea? And, you know, not try to tell me who I can and can't have kids with?"

"You do have a point."

"Tell that to them," Aang muttered, and then sighed. "I have a feeling today's going to be a long day."

Zuko didn't respond, but he privately suspected the younger boy was right about that.



" - and I'm sure all concerned will agree that this is in everybody's best interest." There was a condescending tone in the Earth Kingdom advisor's voice. "After all, the territory that the Fire Nation had occuppied is in really poor condition. An increase in the reparations the Fire Nation has been offering really is the ideal temporary solution."

Zuko suspected it would be unreasonable to throttle the man. "The amount and the term for reparations has been established for over a month now," he pointed out, keeping his voice even and unemotional. "Are you suggesting that the agreement be nullified?"

"Not at all, not at all." The man smiled - an oily sort of smile. "But with all due respect, winter is coming on now, and we hadn't fully understood the extend of the damage before we had the proper time to - "

"A thousand pardons, my Lords." A diffident servant stepped forward, bowing low even as he spoke. "I've just been given word that the Avatar has requested a moment with Firelord Zuko."

"The Avatar?" There was a scattered murmur that passed over the table of assembled nobles.

"Perhaps... we could reconvene in an hour or so," one of the other advisors suggested, eyeing Zuko with a certain apprehension. "We wouldn't want to offend the Avatar..."

Yeah, because that's easy to do... Zuko resisted the urge to sigh and roll his eyes, pushing himself up from his seat. "That might be a good idea," he agreed blandly.

Aang caught up to him almost as soon as he was out of the door. "Over here," he urged in a tense sort of voice, pulling Zuko off into a side corridor of the palace.

Zuko waited until they were inside one of the unoccuppied rooms before turning on the younger boy and fixing him with a flat stare. "Just what was so important that you needed to interrupt a council meeting to tell me about it?"

"I need your help." There was a desperate sort of look in Aang's eyes, and Zuko noticed for the first time that his clothing looked distinctly dissheveled. "Telling them I needed to meet up with you was the only way I could get out of there. Zuko... you have to teach me how to deal with crazy girls." He grabbed handfuls of his friend's robes. "Please."

Oh, for... Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. "What makes you think I'm any better at it than you are? Didn't you have gaggles of fangirls at some point?"

"This is different!" Aang insisted, and let go of the robes to spread his arms with a sort of jerky helplessness. "These girls are really crazy!"

Zuko let out a frustrated huff of breath. "Well, how am I supposed to help?"

"You grew up with Azula, didn't you?"

He frowned. "Good point." And crossed his arms. "Go ahead."

"Okay." Aang took in a long breath, obviously drawing a sense of calm around himself. "I've only met four of them," he began, in a steady tone. "The Sages just kind of left us alone in the room to 'get to know each other'." He exaggerrated the last few words. "Anyway, at first they were all just looking at me, and I answered some of their questions, and that was okay." He rubbed the back of his head, clearly uncomfortable. "I mean, it was weird and all, but I thought, 'hey, I can get through this, right? This isn't so bad.'"

Zuko nodded. "Okay. So..."

"So, they started asking when Air Nomads get married, and then whether they - uh" - He flushed, and hastily went on - "you know - even if they're not married, and things started getting out of hand and they were asking about if we had rituals for it, and if there was sometimes more than - more than one person doing... it." His voice broke on the last syllable, into a high-pitched sort of squeak that seemed to go along well with his blazing red face. His words were tumbling out at that point, punctuated by more and more cracks and warbles as he went along. "And then one of them asked what Air Nomad clothes were made of, and she grabbed my arm to look at it, and then they were all touching me, and - "

" - and you freaked out and ran off to get me," Zuko finished for him. At the younger boy's quick, jerky nod of assent, he sighed. "Not that I blame you, but seriously... if you're going to run away every time, this is probably going to take a lot longer than you want it to."

"But what am I supposed to do!?" There was a note of utter panic in Aang's voice. "No one told me they'd be asking stuff like this! Normal people don't do that when they've just met someone! I thought we'd talk about - I don't know - the weather! Or Air Nomad cooking! Or - Or something! But not that!"

"
Well... that is kind of why they're meeting you," Zuko pointed out, shrugging a bit. "Maybe you just weren't prepared. If you go into this knowing that they're going to ask those kinds of questions, maybe next time you won't scream like a little girl and run away." He raised an eyebrow.

Aang groaned, slapping a hand to this forehead. "This is so messed up," he complained. "How is anyone supposed to be prepared for questions like that? It's - it's impossible! Oh, and for the record," he added, opening one eye to look at Zuko, "I didn't scream."

"But you did run away," Zuko countered.

"Wouldn't you?"

That wasn't an unreasonable question, actually. "Not if I was prepared for it," Zuko responded, and fixed the younger boy with a steady gaze. "Look. You're just going to have to get used to the idea that you're a public figure now. People are going to want to know about you. There are going to be embarrassing questions asked here and there. It goes with being well-known." He shrugged again. "Get used to it."

"
Yeah, and how many times have you been stuck in a room with four girls that some Sages want you to breed with - while 26 more are probably hanging around waiting for their turn - and had to answer all their questions about whether or not Air Nomads had sex rituals?" Aang threw up his hands, then let out a long, despairing sigh, drooping. "I don't know if I can do this..."

Zuko scratched his head, wracking his brain for something to say that might be encouraging. His uncle would know. Or Katara. Katara was the one who always seemed to cheer Aang up when he was in his worst moods. But it wasn't like he could call her in to deal with this...

Hmm. Maybe that was the key.

"You don't want Katara to find out about this, do you?" He noticed with satisfaction how Aang's head jerked back up, and went on. "Well, the longer you draw this out, the more chance that she's going to hear about it. And if you give up now..." He spread his hands. "Who knows what could happen?"

Determination was starting to build back up in Aang's expression. "You're right," he agreed, after a moment. "I have to keep Katara out of this. Just because the Sages are crazy doesn't mean she should have to get upset over it."

Yeah, let's not have Katara get upset, thanks. Zuko still had a few bad memories of those times that he'd prefer not to relive, even if it wasn't him she was angry at. "So, you know what you need to do, right?"

The younger boy took in a deep breath, squaring his shoulders with a firm resolve. "Yeah. I'm ready." He looked up at Zuko with a bit of a smile. "Thanks, Zuko."

"No problem." Zuko managed to return the smile. At least he was able to help this weird situation along. The sooner it was over and done with, the better. "Just... try not to interrupt any more council meetings in the future, okay?"

"Yeah." Aang nodded, but his expression was not exactly as certain as Zuko would've liked. "I'll try not to."

Given the situation, that was probably going to have to do.



Aang's interruption - thankfully his only interruption - caused the rest of the day's meetings to run later than normal. Zuko returned to his rooms after the sun had already gone down, and his heavy robes were really beginning to get to him. Not to mention the pounding at his temples that signified another impending headache.

I wonder if Mai's eaten yet... Maybe it wasn't too late to join her for a meal. Zuko opened the doors into his bedchamber, distracted by thoughts of Mai and food - not necessarily in that order - and had half undone the tie that held his robe closed when he heard the short scream from the girl on his bed.

The naked, unfamiliar girl. On his bed.

For a moment, all he could do was stare in stunned silence.

"Who are you?" the girl wailed, pulling up the covers hastily.

That was enough to snap him out of it. "Who am I?" Zuko repeated, incredulously. "Who are you!? And why are you naked on my bed!?"

She blinked at him, still clutching the covers like a shield. "This - this is your bed?"

"Yes, this is my bed - why do you think I'm in here!?" This was ridiculous. Zuko glared at the girl, already beyond frustrated with the misunderstanding. Obviously, she didn't know who he was, but he didn't feel like enlightening her at that point. "Whose bed did you think it was?"

"I - I - " She bit her lip. "This isn't where Avatar Aang is staying?" she asked then, tentatively.

Oh, you have got to be kidding me... Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, shutting his eyes. I didn't ask for this. Why couldn't Aang keep his problems to himself? "The Avatar is staying here as my guest," he ground out, struggling to keep his voice even. "On my couch." He had second thoughts about giving out that information almost immediately. "And that doesn't mean I want to find you naked on my couch, either!"

"I - I'm sorry!" The girl sank even lower beneath the covers, until only her eyes were peeking out.

"Ugh..." Zuko rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. This was a stupid situation. "Just get out of here!" A thought occurred to him, and he abruptly spun around, feeling uncomfortable. "Get dressed and then get out of here!" he ammended.

She was brushing past him in less than two minutes, and out the door only a few seconds after.

Zuko waited until he couldn't hear her hastily retreating footsteps any more, and then strode forward with a frustrated, "Urgh," and locked the door to his rooms. It wasn't standard procedure, and it would make it hard for Aang if he came back trying to get in, but Zuko didn't feel comfortable undressing until he was sure that no one else was going to join him.

This had better end quickly.



"She was what!?" Aang stared at him, aghast. "Are you sure?"

"How would I not be sure?" Zuko snapped at him. "I walked in and found a naked girl on my bed! Last time I checked, it was pretty hard to mistake 'naked and on my bed'!"

"I don't believe it..." The younger boy slumped, his expression a mix of horror and shock. "That is just... crazy! It's worse than crazy! It's - it's super crazy! And how did she find out where I was staying? I didn't tell anyone!" His eyes widened suddenly. "Oh no... What if she went to my house? What if she talked to Katara?" He clutched the back of his head with both hands, clearly panicking. "What if more girls are talking to Katara, right now?" He jumped across the room for his staff. "I have to go!"

"Wait." Zuko grabbed the back of his shirt, restraining him. "Let's not jump to any conclusions. If you go back there now, they'll start to suspect that something's up."

"But it'll be even worse if those girls have been there!" Aang protested. "Who knows what they might've said? I have to clear things up!"

"You don't know that - what if the girls didn't stop by? It would seem too weird if you went home now." Zuko thought for a moment. "I'll go and talk to them. You wait here."

Aang was clearly not happy with that plan. "Wait here? Alone?" His eyes darted nervously around the room. "But what if more naked girls come by? What should I do?"

"Lock the door." Seeing as how he was the one who'd found the first naked girl, Zuko didn't have a lot of sympathy for him just then. "I'll knock when I get back."

"How will I know it's you?" Aang demanded, clutching at the front of Zuko's shirt again. He'd clearly worked himself up into a full-blown panic now. "What if it's a naked girl pretending to be you, and I let her in and she jumps on me and - "

"I'll say it's me," Zuko responded flatly, brushing the younger boy's hands aside. He could feel his patience wearing thin. "Whoever this girl is, I think she'd have a pretty hard time imitating my voice. Okay?"

"But - but - what if they gang up on you and force you to say it's you, but really it's them and - "

"Aang." Zuko cut him off, leveling him with a flat, unamused stare. "A gang of naked girls is not going to ambush me and force me to ask to be let into my own rooms." He shook his head. "For one thing, I think they'd have a hard time explaining to the guards why they were hanging out in the hallway naked - but that's beside the point!" He crossed his arms. "You need to calm down."

The younger boy took in a long breath, shut his eyes, and let it out. "You're right," he said, in a much more reasonable tone, opening his eyes again to fix them on Zuko. "I'm just... letting this whole thing get to me. But I can be calm. Yeah." He managed a queasy-looking smile. "I'll... I'll just wait for you to get back."

"Good." Zuko turned and reached for the door handle. "I'll try not to be too long," he promised over his shoulder, and opened the door, letting himself out. Only once the door had closed behind him did he let out the frustrated sigh he'd been holding in.

Sometimes he really wished he'd listened to his uncle's advice and taken up Pai Shou instead of searching for the Avatar.



"Zuko!" Katara looked surprised when she opened the door. All the same, she stood aside and let him in. "Why are you here?"

"Uh - Aang forgot something." Zuko cursed himself mentally for forgetting that he was going to need a reason to be there. And then again for coming up with such a lame one. "He asked me to come by and get it."

"Forgot what?" Sokka wandered out of the kitchen. "He's got his staff and his clothes. It's not like Aang carries around a lot of things with him. Oh, wait, let me guess..." - he turned abruptly and grabbed the sleeping lemur from the table beside him, prompting an undignified squawk - "It's Momo! He forgot Momo! Right?"

Zuko stared at the squirming lemur blankly. "Uh. No."

Katara was also giving her brother a strange look. "Why would he take Momo? It's not like there's a lemur babysitter around who could keep him out of trouble when Aang's busy with the Sages." She turned to Zuko then, with a bit of a worried expression. "How is Aang, anyway? Is he doing okay?"

Sokka raised an eyebrow at her, setting the disgruntled animal back on the table. "You're worried already? He's only been gone since this morning."

Two spots of color rose on Katara's cheeks. "Look, I'm just not too crazy about this idea of 'tests', all right? Who knows what they're actually doing to him over there?" She glanced back towards Zuko. "He is doing okay... right?"

A vivid memory of Aang's wild-eyed expression of extreme distress flashed through his mind. "Yeah... he's fine."

"Oh. Well, good." Katara smiled, apparently satisfied by his less than sincere report. "Maybe I could stop by and visit some time, then."

Zuko had a momentary vision of Katara walking into his rooms and finding a naked girl sitting on his couch, and blanched. "That's... probably not a good idea," he said, scratched awkwardly at the back of his head. "Aang's not really in good shape for company. I mean, that's why he sent me, right?"

"Right..." Katara was looking at him funny, but she apparently wasn't suspicious enough to question him about his excuse. "So what was it that Aang forgot?"

"Oh, it was his - uh - pillow." Zuko gave himself another mental slap, but it was out now and he had to work with it. "He said he was having trouble sleeping. Apparently the ones at the palace are too... uh... soft? Yeah, that sounds about right," he muttered, under his breath.

"Too soft?" Sokka repeated, narrowing his eyes. Then he abruptly relaxed. "I can buy that."

"Okay..." Katara raised an eyebrow. "If Aang really needs his pillow, then I'll go get it for him." She turned down the hallway, passing Toph on the way. "Just wait here."

"So" - Sokka slumped down next to the table - "have a seat."

Zuko shook his head. "Sorry, but I can't stay."

"Not you." Sokka rolled his eyes upward. "I meant Toph. We're having a thumb war tournament. Unless, of course, you want in on the action." He raised his eyebrows meaningfully.

"No, that's okay."

"Yeah, you wouldn't last long anyway." Toph conveniently bumped into him on the way to the table. "A pillow, huh?" she commented, under her breath. "Smooth excuse."

"Shut up," Zuko muttered in return. He raised his voice for Sokka's benefit. "So, has anyone been here looking for Aang recently?"

The other boy shrugged. "Not that I know of."

"
One of the Earth Sages came by around lunchtime," Toph pointed out, folding herself down opposite Sokka. "He wanted to know where Aang was staying at the palace." She shrugged. "Katara told him it was your rooms."

That's normal enough. At least it hadn't been one of the girls coming by. Unfortunately, it also meant that the Earth Sages were giving that information out. Which meant they could expect more visits from potentially naked girls.

That wasn't exactly a good thought.

"Well, here it is." Katara's expression was wry as she came out holding the item in question. "The oh-so-necessary pillow." She handed it over. "Make sure you tell Aang to come and visit when he's feeling up to it, okay?"

"Sure." Zuko tucked the pillow under his arm, and half-turned back towards the door. "Anyway, I should be getting back. So, uh, I guess I'll see you all later."

"Later." Sokka waved a negligant hand. "You are so going down," he commented, to Toph.

"Yeah, in your dreams maybe."

Zuko was still shaking his head even as the door closed behind him.

Almost immediately, Aang seemed to materialize by his side. "So? What'd they say?"

His surprise only lasted a moment - and then Zuko slapped his face with one hand, counting to ten inside his head in an attempt to keep his cool. "What are you doing here?" he demanded, through clenched teeth, hastily stalking away from the door in case someone decided to open it again. "What if someone saw you?"

"I know, I know!" Aang jogged a little to keep up with him. "But I just couldn't wait! It was driving me crazy!"

"Ugh! Fine." There was no point trying to reason with him; it was just Zuko's bad luck to be in this annoying situation with someone who couldn't be counted on to stick to any kind of set plan. "It was one of the Sages who came by, and Katara told him where you're staying. He's probably passed it on to every single girl on that list."

Aang let out a long, relieved breath. "So Katara's not upset."

"No, but I am." Zuko frowned at the younger boy. "Do you realize what this means? Every one of those thirty girls is going to be hanging around my rooms - with or without clothing - hoping for a chance to get you alone. We're practically going to have to keep that place under lockdown!"

"Oh no... I didn't think of that..." Aang's expression looked suddenly anxious. "What should we do?"

"What can we do?" Zuko let out another frustrated breath. "We're just going to have to ride this out and hope it blows over soon. Hopefully after a while they'll all realize you're not interested and just... go away."

"Yeah..." Aang nodded, but he didn't look particularly reassured. "Do you think maybe if I told them about Katara, they'd take the hint?"

"Couldn't hurt." Somehow, though, Zuko didn't think that a girl who was willing to strip down and wait naked in some strange guy's bed would give up so easily. Something occurred to him then, and he narrowed his eyes at the other boy. "Wait... did you fly here?"

"Uh... yeah." Aang hefted his staff. "So?"

One of these days, he really was going to snap and throttle him. Zuko kept his voice even with a great deal of effort. "And did you unlock the door before you went?"

"Oh. I forgot." Aang gave him a bit of a sheepish grin. "Sorry. I guess I'll just fly back so I can let you in."

Zuko counted to ten, and then back down again. It's not worth the effort... It's really not worth it... "Yeah, you do that."

"Okay - see you there!" His glider snapped open, and with a sharp gust of air, he was flying off.

The headache was definitely taking over; Zuko rubbed at his forehead, wondering if he really had the mental strength to manage this. Day one, he thought to himself, wryly. This is just day one.

Tomorrow was already looking bleak.

 

 

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