Leaning into the bar counter, Mai watches the man next to her take a low drag of his cigarette, smoke curling around the edges of his fingers. He is tapping at his drink, blowing out a stream of gray into the musty nightclub air.
“You didn’t used to smoke,” Mai says; the man turns to face her, face twisting into a grimace.
“Trust me, I don’t want to,” is his quiet response.
Mai watches in morbid fascination at the way the red and pink scar around his left eye bends and shifts with his words. That certainly hadn’t been there before, in college – when Zuko was a biochemistry major and Mai was studying business and maybe they were a little more than friends. But Mai doesn’t dwell on the past anymore.
“Surprise meeting you here,” she mutters, “Never pegged you as a person to enjoy nightclubs.”
Zuko shrugs, and cracks a small, plastic smile. “Well,” he begins, “Sometimes I like to drown my sorrow in alcohol, like any healthy adult.”
She frowns, but doesn’t say anything else. As she tips her glass up to down her juice, the DJ switches the music to a fast, pumping rock tune. A collective cheer rises from the dance floor, and the sudden flurry of movement inside the bar increases. Mai scowls as the music pounds in her ears.
“Never thought you’d be at a place like this either,” Zuko teases, a little bit of warmth seeping into his voice. He takes another drag of his cigarette, the smoke filling his mouth.
Mai shrugs. “I’m here with some friends. I’m the designated driver, which is why I’m drinking orange juice and not drowning my sorrows in alcohol, as I, a healthy adult, should be doing.” To make her point, she waves the bartender over for a refill.
A silence falls between the two, filled by the incessant clamor of the clubbers and the booming music. Then, Zuko says something, but Mai only sees his lips moving.
“What?” she asks. “I didn’t hear.”
He blinks, then glances down at his glass again. A tuft of black hair falls across his forehead. “Nothing,” Zuko replies. He’s tapping the cigarette into an ashtray now, watching the red embers turn black.
Mai says, “Let’s go somewhere else.”
Surprised, Zuko looks at her. “Don’t you have friends to wait for?”
She shrugs. “I’ve got the keys to the car anyways. Besides, they’ll probably be here for a couple more hours.”
Zuko considers this for a moment, then looks at his whiskey. “Alright,” he says, “This music is giving me a headache.”
“Really? I seem to remember you listening to this kind of music all the time in college,” Mai says, really smiling for the first time that night. She slides some bills over to the bartender, and Zuko does the same.
“Hey,” he complains, “Don’t make fun of my emo phase.”
“College, Zuko. You were in college. It wasn’t even middle
He scowls at her, but it is light hearted. His scar seems darker in the dim light. They walk out of the club together, with a sort of familiarity that makes Mai’s heart ache.
Outside, it’s cooler, quieter, bright streetlights illuminating the sidewalk. Mai picks a direction and they start walking, aimlessly.
“So,” Mai says, after a considerable amount of silence. Zuko turns toward her. “How’ve you been? I haven’t seen you since graduation.”
At once, a look flashes across Zuko’s face. He pauses, beginning hesitantly, as if carefully choosing his words. “It’s been…alright. I f***ed up my life a little bit, but what’s new?”
“Does that have anything do with that?” Before she can stop herself, Mai points to her left eye. She was never known for her tact. Apparently, Zuko remembers this, because he only flinches a little bit before recovering.
“…Yeah,” he says, “Not one of my proudest moments.”
He trails off then, face twisting as if he wanted to say more, but Mai remembers that this means Zuko doesn’t really want to continue the conversation – she’s proven right when he reaches into his pocket for a cigarette. With trembling hands, Zuko lights it, inhaling and exhaling deeply.
“Why’d you start smoking?” Mai asks. They round a corner, and Mai recognizes the street they’ve stepped onto. Zuko doesn’t seem to notice anything.
He shrugs with nonchalance. “Helped me cope, with stress. And stuff.”
Another vague answer. Mai frowns, considering her options. She might be treading on dangerous ground – but she thinks she still knows Zuko, even if it had been years since they’d last met.
“How’s Azula been?” she ventures. “I heard she got an internship offer at a huge firm.”
There is little outward change in Zuko’s expression, but his next words are frigid. “Yeah. She got hired. She’s doing well.”
Ah – so there was still tension between the two, although Mai feels like there is something more. Before she can ask another question, Zuko smiles at her, lopsided but endearing.
“Isn’t it time for me to ask some questions now?” he says. They pass by a flower store, and Mai remembers working twelve hour shifts in order to pay rent for her apartment junior year. This was also where Zuko had stepped in once, to buy flowers, before realizing that it was Mai behind the counter.
He’d bought the flowers anyways, red in the face, before giving it right back to her. They’d laughed about that all year.
Zuko doesn’t even spare the shop a glance as they step by.
“What did you do after college?” he asks.
Mai looks up at the night sky. “Nothing really. Tried for some internships. Applied to some jobs. Didn’t really get anything back the first year or so, so I ended up waitressing at a fancy restaurant as a job and tutoring kids in my spare time. I scraped by.”
At the end of the road, a small café stood. It was still open, warm light spilling out of its windows.
Mai continues with her story. “Then, I finally got a job at this local business, and I’ve been climbing up from there.” She shrugs. “I also need to get new friends that don’t spend all their days off partying like there’s no tomorrow.”
Zuko laughs softly, and Mai is hit with the realization that she really, really misses the sound. She peeks over, watching as smoke puffs out with every small laugh, how he brings his hand up to his mouth and how his eyes curve into pretty lines – even the one with the scar.
“It all works out, I guess,” Zuko murmurs. They’ve reached the café now. Even at 1am, there were still customers sitting at the tables, mostly college students working on papers.
This, Mai remembers, was also where they’d had their first date. Ty Lee worked as a barista here, and had told Mai she’d hook her up with some nice discounts. Mai, being a broke college student, had agreed.
“Hey,” Mai says, stopping infront of the café’s doors. “Want to get coffee? I’ll treat.”
Zuko blinks, glancing down at the cigarette in his hand. “Sure,” he says, dropping it to the floor and stubbing it with his shoe. “But it’s ok. I’ll pay for mine.”
“Nope,” Mai says, already walking through the doors, “Consider it my thank you gift to you for giving me an excuse to leave the club.”
At this, Zuko’s lips curl into a grin. “If you say so,” he says, and Mai turns to smile at him. “You still owe me a favor for saving your liver.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Zuko grumbles, and they step up to order from a sleepy barista. Once the coffee is handed over, the two of them settle down at a table, soaking in the silence.
“…Hey,” Zuko says, slowly, nervously, “Didn’t…didn’t we have our first date here?”
Mai pauses mid drink. “Wow,” she replies, “You remembered that?”
“Yeah. How could I forget? The barista was flirting with you and you made me … “roast him”, I think were your exact words.”
She laughs, a little too loud – one of the students raises his head to glare at her. “I remember that,” she wheezes. “Ty Lee thought it was hilarious. I think he messed up our orders too.”
Zuko nods, a fond smile taking over his face. Mai is struck by his gentle expression – a little sad, a little nostalgic.
Then, Zuko says, “I missed you” – so quietly that Mai has to strain her ears to hear. She freezes, fingers curling tightly around her cup.
“Oh,” she breathes.
At once, Zuko grimaces, moving as if to stand. “Sorry,” he says, “I should – “
“I missed you too,” Mai says. She stares down at her cup. “But you just disappeared. No note, no text, no nothing. We didn’t even officially break up.”
Mai raises her head. “So – can you tell me now? Why did you leave?”
“Family problems,” Zuko says flatly – not to dismiss Mai’s question, but because it is simply easier to suppress his emotions. “I liked biochem, but my Father thought it was a useless study, so he brought me back to try and train me for the business world. But Azula was already doing that, and she was so much better than me anyways, and I told him that. We’d fight constantly, on and off, until one day I’d finally crossed the line and – “
He pauses to catch his breath, obviously not having planned to rant. “I was afraid, I guess. I’m – I’m sorry. I didn’t want to leave you hanging like – like that.”
His hands are shaking again, and Mai can tell that Zuko is trying very, very hard not to reach into his pocket for a smoke.
“Oh,” she says again, because what can she say to that? “Well,” Mai begins, tapping her finger on the table. “It’s all in the past now.”
Zuko looks at her, uncomprehending.
“I was pretty hurt,” she elaborates with a wry smile, “But it’s been years. I think I’d be over it by now.”
Zuko’s gaze shifts down to his coffee, quiet. Mai continues to speak, fingers tapping against her own styrofoam cup. “Besides,” she says, “Right now, you’re here.”
“Yeah,” Zuko murmurs, “I guess I am.” The steam curls off the surface of his coffee, which is a rich brown, saturated with cream; Mai thinks it looks like hot chocolate.
She says, “How long will you be staying?”
Zuko shrugs. “As long as I can.”
It is a vague answer – quiet, unassuming. Mai feels the beginnings of a smile tug at her lips. “Then,” she says, “if you don’t have a place to stay, you can sleep at my place for now.”
An invitation – and Zuko takes it with both hands, as if grasping a spider’s thread. “I’ll take you up on that offer then,” he says, and there is something like hope in his eyes. “Thank you.”
When they walk out of the café, together, Zuko’s hands have stilled. They walk back toward the club, unhurriedly, soaking in the sharp midnight air and the stars and each other’s presence. Zuko smiles the whole way back, and does not light a smoke, at all.