DISCLAIMER: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
A/N: Alright, full disclosure, I borrowed this chapter's title from a local movie called My Ex and Whys. So lemme squeeze in another disclaimer: I don't own Cathy Garcia-Molina's work, nor have I watched this particular Liza Soberano-Enrique Gil movie. I just… I just really love a good pun, okay? Indulge my inner Sokka lol
Also, shoutout to IDidn'tSignUp4This for bingeing my works! It's thanks to you that I decided to update this haha
CHAPTER 18: Ex and Whys
"How did it go?"
Zuko pushes himself off the pillar he is leaning on as Katara approaches from the Dean's Office. She smiles shyly at him, clutching her binder to her chest.
"I think it went great! Apparently, I 'more than exceeded' the expected grades in their entrance exam and my undergrad requirements were 'top-notch.'" She bites her lower lip to keep herself from squealing giddily and tries to nonchalantly wave the interview off. "I mean— Dean Shyu was probably just laying it on really thick because I mentioned in the phone interview that I was more inclined towards BSSU, but—"
"Katara," Zuko's voice stops her rambling, "Stop selling yourself short. You're more than qualified to study here."
She blinks at him and fiddles with the edge of her binder. "Really? You think so? I still feel like I won't fit in here— it's so nice and fancy— Northern was a small school, you know— and commuting here every weekend might get really expensive, even if the scholarship covers meals and lodging—"
She shuts her mouth at Zuko's raised eyebrow and chuckles sheepishly. "Sorry, just… nervous energy."
Zuko barely represses a snort. "Sure. Uh… wanna get started on the tour?"
"Wanna get rid of me that quick?" Katara quips, falling into step beside him as they make their way past the empty classrooms.
"Yes," he deadpans, then peeks at her from the corner of his eye. "Also, Kiyi just texted. She's in the quad."
"Alright. Where's that?" She grins widely and throws an arm out. "This place is huge!"
"We actually passed by it on our way here," Zuko explains, turning onto the tree-lined sidewalk. "Although, I have to admit, I don't know much about getting around campus from the School of Social Sciences. I didn't have a lot of classes here during my undergrad."
"Oh? Why, what did you major in?"
He shrugs, the tips of his ears turning pink. "Business Management."
Katara blinks, trying to reconcile the newfound information with what she knew.
Zuko sighs and stops. "What?"
"What?" mimics Katara.
"You have that look on your face," he points out, "Like you're itching to ask a lot of questions you shouldn't ask."
"I don't— I'm not—!" She blushes and crosses her arms tightly over her binder. "I don't do that!"
"Sure you do," he replies matter-of-factly, crossing an empty avenue to get to the admissions building, "You get the same look every time Toph mentions she did something you don't like."
Katara scrunches her face beside him.
"It's bad enough that he can hear my thoughts, now he's reading my face…" she mutters, trudging on ahead. Zuko smirks and follows her.
"Talking to yourself again?"
"Shut up, jerk."
They're almost by the grassy knolls leading down to the quad when Zuko breaks the silence.
"You can ask, you know."
Katara whips around to face him in surprise.
The expression is back on her face and Zuko wonders if he'll regret this decision. He nods before he loses his nerve.
Katara stops walking and takes a deep breath. Zuko feels his palms sweating.
"Why did you major in Business Management? Were you just aiming for a high-paying job? How did you end up jobless? Did you get into one of Toph's shady businesses and it fell through? Is that how you ended up as roommates?"
Zuko pinched his nose. "Wow, you really didn't hold back."
She places a hand on her hip, tapping her foot impatiently.
"I was supposed to take over the family business," he begins, stuffing his hands in his pockets and walking forward.
"Ah, so you were a spoiled rich kid," Katara teases. Zuko grunts in half-hearted agreement at her comment and continues walking.
"As to why I was jobless…" He swallows uncomfortably, keeping his eyes on his feet, "I had some… disagreements with my father about how he was running the company, so I, uh, had to leave."
"How could you leave if you were supposed to take over the company?" He could hear the frown in Katara's tone. "Couldn't you just wait until you're the one in charge and change whatever policy you and your dad couldn't agree on?"
"It's not that easy," murmurs Zuko, gaze still averted. "My father doesn't take kindly to opposition."
"That's just stupid," argues Katara. "How can you lead a company if you don't listen to different ideas?"
He shrugs noncommittally, hurrying down the sloping grounds. He's still trying to piece together his own thoughts on the matter when he sees a horribly familiar face approaching.
His blood runs cold.
No. No, no, no.
Distantly, he hears Katara curse as she bumps into him— he didn't even realize he's halted to a standstill— but right now, he couldn't notice anyone else but the woman in front of him.
She still looks the same: impassive yet sharp amber eyes, pale narrow face, thin lips, not a single hair out of place.
"Zuko," she greets, her raised brow being the only indication she's as surprised as he is. "I didn't expect to see you at Roku's."
"I, uh, I… I got dragged into—" he runs a hand over his face self-consciously, silently cursing his spirits-forsaken luck, "Um, I'm touring Kiyi— she's looking for colleges and I happened to be in the area—"
Mai's eyes flick to Katara, who is hanging back and trying not to appear too curious as to why Zuko is suddenly so flustered.
"That's not Kiyi," Mai says flatly.
"Oh, right! Katara and I were just on our way to meet her— this is Katara, she, uh—" Zuko turns to Katara, eyes wide with panic, and she doesn't know whether to laugh or take pity on him, so she settles on smiling at the newcomer. "Katara, this— this is Mai."
That name sounds familiar, she thinks, but in her line of work, she hears all sorts of names, so she doesn't really dwell on the niggling feeling.
"Nice to meet you, Mai," Katara says brightly, extending her hand. Mai shakes it briefly with long, pale fingers before addressing Zuko dryly.
"Are you going to break up with this one using a note, too?"
Zuko flushes bright red and chokes on his own spit, and Katara snaps her fingers as pieces of the puzzle click in her mind.
"Oh! That's why you're so scared! She's the knife-throwing ex you told us about!" Katara blurts out then claps a hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles. She swears she sees the corners of Mai's lips lift into an almost-smile.
"Glad to know I still scare you, Zuko," Mai says in her flat voice, the almost-smile seeping into her tone.
Katara couldn't help but pile on, especially since this was the most awkward she's seen Zuko. "He should be scared of anyone he breaks up with using a note. I told him he was so chicken not to do it in person."
Mai huffs in agreement.
Zuko groans and covers his face with his hand, wondering how on earth he ended up in this situation.
Katara seems to sense he is at his wit's end, though. She shuffles backwards uncomfortably, albeit her sly smile.
"Umm, anyway, I'll go meet Kiyi at the quad so you guys can talk," she says, failing to hide her amused grin as she hurries away.
Mai watches her leave and Zuko sighs.
This is not a conversation I'm prepared to have.
"I like her," Mai comments, a glint in her eyes. "If you're going to break up with her, do it through an email."
"We're not—" Zuko groans in frustration and runs a hand through his hair. "Mai, what are you doing here?"
"Uncle got promoted to Head of Criminology. I'm the family representative of good will and congratulations." She rolls her eyes and doesn't look impressed.
"Oh, uh, good for him," he scratches the back of his neck awkwardly. Mai's eyes narrow at him.
"I'm still waiting for an apology, Zuko."
"I'm sorry, Mai—"
She quickly cuts off his apology.
"Do you even know how hard it was after you left?" She crosses her arms, and to anyone else, she may have looked only mildly annoyed, but Zuko knows better, and he knows it is his fault. Her normally composed voice cracks a little. "I woke up and you were gone, Zuko. You didn't answer my calls or my messages. As if your note explained everything to me. We were together for four years. We'd just started living together. Didn't that warrant a face-to-face conversation?"
Zuko hangs his head. "Mai, I'm really sorry. I thought it was for the best—"
"Don't." Her tone is as sharp as the knives she loves to play with. "It was bad enough that everyone in the office seemed to know you left. It's even worse that they treated me like a broken little thing afterwards."
She averts her gaze and wrinkles her nose in disgust.
"The worst is not knowing why you'd gone," she murmurs, jaw clenched and words clipped. "I know you and Ozai had a big fight when you quit, but I don't see why you had to leave me."
Zuko swallows and straightens up, some of his nerve working its way back to his spine. She has to know. He owes her that, at least.
"Father disowned me, Mai. He did this to me," he gestures to his scar. "Just because I stood up to him. Just because I stood up for Azula. I know we don't get along, but she's still my sister, and I told you weeks before I left that what happened to her wasn't right. But you didn't listen when I wanted to talk about it. You brushed me off for being sentimental. When I asked if you wanted to visit her, you refused. You said she deserved it. Sure, she was horrible most of the time, but she's your best friend, Mai, and you didn't even seem to care."
He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes against the burning memories washing over him.
"You were willing to be complicit in the abuse just to keep your place in the company. You still wanted to go up the corporate ladder with me in tow, even when I told you I couldn't stomach it anymore. I couldn't be the one beside you through all that, Mai. I'm sorry."
She is silent for a few moments, face stony, hair whipping behind her as the breeze picked up. The picture of formidability breaks a little when she sighs.
"I do care about her, Zuko," she says quietly, her gaze burning. "That thing with Azula was complicated, and I warned her over and over that she was biting off more than she can chew, but she never listened. It was just better to think that she got what was coming for her instead of thinking it was my fault for not being convincing enough."
She sighs again, and her amber eyes flick up at him. "And I care about you. I wanted to be there for you after you and Ozai fought, but you didn't even give me a chance. You just left. And even if I agreed with you, Zuko, I can't afford to leave the company. I've worked so hard for this, and my family depends on it. You know that. I couldn't just up and leave when things get tough."
Zuko ignores the thinly-veiled yet well-placed barb.
"You remember Lu Ten?"
Mai's brows furrow a fraction. "Your cousin? Yes, I remember him."
"If I stayed, Mai, I would have ended up like him. Or I would have ended up like Ozai. Either way, I couldn't let that happen. It almost happened to Azula." He heaves a great sigh and looks her square in the eye. "You're a strong woman, Mai. You can withstand whatever the company might throw at you. But it's also just a job for you— a career path you chose. It was forced on me my whole life, and I didn't even realize I didn't want it until last year. I still don't know what I want to do, Mai. But I can't live like that anymore. I can't tolerate what my father is doing to the people in the company for the sake of progress."
"Good for you, then." Zuko doesn't know if she is being sarcastic or not, but she doesn't give him a chance to figure her out. He supposes he deserves it. "I have to go. Tom Tom's waiting in the car. He's probably wondering where I am."
"Oh, okay, uh— say hi to him for me."
Mai rolls her eyes. "Sure, I'll do just that."
Zuko's mouth quirks into a small smile. Yep, that was definitely sarcasm.
She returns his smile with a tiny one of her own.
"This has been… informative," she says, brushing past him as she heads to the direction of the parking lot. Zuko catches her shoulder before she could walk too far away.
"I wish you all the best, Mai. Really. I'm so sorry things didn't work out."
"I'm not." She looks at him over her shoulder with an unreadable look. "Good bye, Zuko."
She tugs herself from his grip and walks away without turning back.
"How did it go?"
Katara and Kiyi are waiting for him on one of the benches that surround the quad. Both look at him curiously as he approaches, and Zuko is relieved that the previous amusement on Katara's face has been replaced with concern.
He shrugs in response to her question, because honestly, he doesn't know if it went well or not. His mind is still reeling from the encounter— second-guessing if he did the right thing, questioning his decisions and the direction his life has taken, wondering if it was really better this way even though leaving the company couldn't have changed his father—
Something in his expression must have broken, because Katara surprises him by tackling him into a hug. He freezes at the contact, unsure of where to place his hands. He settles on patting her hair awkwardly as he often did whenever Kiyi hugs him.
"I'm sorry I laughed at you earlier," she says into his shirt. "I know how hard it is to meet an ex unexpectedly right after you've broken up."
"Thanks, Katara," his breath ruffles some strands of her curly hair. She squeezes him tighter and he finds himself closing his eyes and relaxing into her warm embrace. He sighs and leans his cheek on her hair, curling his arms around her waist.
Any other day, he would've teased her for the way she handled her unexpected meeting with her ex, considering how she avoided Aang like the plague at Suki and Sokka's party. But after airing out all the dirty laundry with Mai, Zuko understands why she chose to avoid the bald dude instead of talking.
Plus, he certainly isn't complaining about how she feels in his arms. She is the warm, soft, comforting presence that he didn't know he needed after his talk with Mai. Zuko sighs again and holds her tighter. Even though he would never admit it out loud, Zuko really needed this kind of unspoken understanding after being bombarded with painful memories of his father and his sister.
There is a cough behind them and Zuko's eyes snaps open to see Kiyi smiling impishly at them.
Speaking of sisters…
"Not to break this adorable moment, you guys, but I'm starving!"
Zuko extricates himself from Katara's arms— she seems as reluctant as he is to break the hug— and reaches over to ruffle Kiyi's hair.
"Sorry, Kiyi. C'mon. Let's go get some lunch at the cafeteria."
A/N: Alriiiiight! Finally, some PLOT! The much-awaited backstory is finally coming to light! And it's just about to get more loaded from here, folks! Please tell me what you think of this chapter. I am hard at work on the next one, so hopefully it'll come sooner than expected!