Title: Power and Courage Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender Author: devilinthedetails Genre: Angst; Romance. Characters: Zuko; Mai. Summary: Zuko struggles with the consequences and opposition of one of the first decrees he makes as Fire Lord. Power and Courage Zuko sat, shoulders slumped, massaging his throbbing temples, before the fine wooden writing desk where in one of his first acts as Fire Lord he had signed a decree forbidding parents and masters to burn children and teenagers in their care severely enough to scar. He couldn’t believe that centuries of Fire Nation history had passed without such a prohibition being made for the protection of the youngest, most vulnerable members of society, but then when some of his proud nobles reacted to the circulation of this decree as if it were an offense deep and searing as a burn on the face, he had understood why no such decree had ever been proclaimed by any past Fire Lord. So many of the Fire Nation nobles had been bitter that parents and masters could no longer legally burn their offspring and students for any reason or no reason at all. It was enough for Zuko to despise the hard-hearted nobles of this proud land he ruled too steeped in an honor that could too easily morph into cruelty. “What’s wrong?” Mai had slipped silently through the ajar door of his study from the rest of his quarters and padded over to him. Now she knelt behind him, deftly squeezing the defeat from his hunched shoulders and tension from his taut neck. “The nobles of this fine land I rule.” Zuko scowled. “They think my decree outlawing the burning of children and students severely enough to scar is just softness. Softness in me that will spread to infect the next generation and the entire future of our once strong nation. As if it is abuse and scars that makes children and students strong. As if our nation would be nothing without abuse and scars. As if it were built on abuse and scars.” “Not all nobles are opposed to your decree.” Mai’s voice was level and her hands were steady as she continued to knead at his shoulders and neck. “Only the foolish and nasty ones are, and who cares about them?” “Who cares about them?” Zuko sputtered, and he noticed out of the corner of his eyes the candles spaced throughout his study flickering in imitation of his mood. “Who cares about them?” repeated Mai with an indifference—a flippancy—that infuriated Zuko. “I do,” he snapped, twisting away from her massaging hands. “I care.” The candles blazed and roared in an echo of his flaring temper. Sucking in a long, soothing breath, Zuko tried to calm himself before he burned down his study and Mai along with it. “Forgive me,” he said in an almost whisper as the candle flames lowered again as if in apologies of their own. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you. It’s just I don’t understand how you can’t care. How I could possibly not care.” “Then listen”—Mai trailed a finger down his spine, tickling him through the silk robes he wore—“and I will tell you.” She leaned forward, her breath hot in the shell of his ear, and murmured, “The nobles with a vision of this country that aligns with yours aren’t upset by your decree. The only nobles who are angry are the cruel ones who shouldn’t matter to the future of this country. Why care about them? Why give them that power over you now that you are Fire Lord?” “I just worry that more people support those nobles than me.” Zuko leaned back against Mai, folding into her strength to avoid a weary collapse. “I worry that more people in this country have equated cruelty with honor than dishonor.” “Most people don’t support those nobles,” Mai assured him quietly. “They just don’t have the courage and the power to make changes as you do.” “You make me feel better.” Zuko turned to kiss Mai’s mouth, the taste of her lingering on his lips. “It’s almost like you don’t hate me.” “It’s almost like I don’t hate you,” agreed Mai, drawing his mouth to hers for another, longer kiss. A declaration of an absence of antipathy that had somehow come to mean love for them. A secret understanding they had forged together. His passion countered and cooled by her unperturbable nature.