It struck Zuko when he was nine years old. It was at that age he realized girls were profoundly different than boys, other than obvious physical variations of course. Having grown up in the isolation of the palace, he hadn't had much contact with girls around his age. He didn't count Azula; she was a demon, not a girl. So when his demon of a sister was surrounded by her two closest friends (or 'followers' as Zuko had taken to calling them), it was no wonder he had taken some mild interest in their behavior.
Ty Lee and Mai were their names he believed, and after comparing them with the women of the Fire Nation court that he had born witness to, he found that they were nothing like their older counterparts. While the women would sit properly in their seats and hide their faces behind silken fans, Ty Lee would perform acrobatic tricks in the mud. While the women would laugh and feign interest in what each of their companions had to say, Mai would sit propped up against a tree and refuse to take part in any activities that were remotely unappealing. Zuko wondered if it was age or personality that brought about these differences, but altogether he decided that he didn't care one way or another. Girls were infected with cooties, and he stood his best chances as far away from them as possible.
"Zuko, why don't you join your sister and her friends? They look like they're having fun." His Mother smiled down at him as they sat beneath the shade of the courtyard willow tree. The boy raised an eyebrow, turning his attention to the three. It seemed Azula and Ty Lee were playing some sort of clapping game. If you lost, your punishment was a rough pinch on the arm. From the forming bruises on Ty Lee, it seemed Azula was winning. Mai, on the other hand, was observing them disinterestedly from a few feet away. That is, until her eyes met Zuko's. Zuko quickly looked away, only to glance back to see if the girl was still staring at him. She was, in fact, a blush tinting her cheeks as she swiftly turned her attention to the ground. Just a week ago Azula had played a terrible trick on them by forcing Zuko to knock Mai into the courtyard fountain. It had been an embarrassing and horrific event, one that Zuko did not find pleasant to recall.
"I don't want to." Zuko crossed his arms and nodded his head, as if all had been decided.
"Come now." Ursa stroked his hair and gave him a gentle nudge in the shoulder. She rose, taking her son by the hand and lifting him to his feet. "Just for a few minutes. I'll go request that lunch be made."
Zuko sighed, his mouth twisted into a grimace. His mother simply didn't understand. Spending more time with Azula wasn't a means by which to build a friendship. It only gave her more chances to humiliate and demean him. Nevertheless, Zuko could not refuse his mother's pleading eyes. He staggered over to the girls, making it known in his unwilling demeanor that he would rather be swallowing a handful of mud. His heart sunk to his stomach when Azula looked up at him with wicked eyes and put a halt to the clapping game (to which Ty Lee seemed utterly grateful).
"Hello, Brother." Azula's smirk sent chills up his spine. "There's enough people now… How would you like to play tag with us?"
Zuko inclined his head suspiciously at his sibling, approaching her with caution. "Fine. I'll be 'it', then," he volunteered, as he knew he would end up being unanimously elected such. "I'll count to ten."
"Come on, Mai!" Ty Lee dashed over to the blushing girl and jerked her to her feet with intertwined hands. "Zuko's really fast!"
Zuko shut his eyes. "One..."
Mai and Ty Lee went sprinting toward opposite ends of the courtyard while Azula sneakily began climbing up the lower branches of the willow tree. When Zuko finally reached ten, he found that a surge of adrenaline was coursing through his body. A smile tinged his face. It had been a while since he'd played such a game. He went dashing toward Ty Lee, who only giggled and looped around the yard at least five times with him in pursuit. Finding them equally matched in speed, Zuko came to a halt when he saw Mai standing frozen in the near corner. He shot her a daring smile and instead lunged for her. Mai gasped, breaking out into a run across the grass, though he was gaining on her steadily. She adjusted her strategy and rounded the willow tree, using it as a barrier between them. Her heart pounded not only from the exercise, but from the laughter that escaped her chaser's lips.
"You're pretty good!" he called from behind the tree, taking a step to the right. She mirrored his movements, using the stalled time to catch her breath. They began a playful dance around the trunk of the tree, dashing in every which direction. Azula waited until they were circling toward each other before sweeping down from the tree and sticking out her leg. Mai tripped over her, causing her to go plummeting toward the ground- or rather, the oncoming body that stopped a little too late. They went crashing to the ground, each letting forth a simultaneous cry. When Zuko opened his eyes, a mortified Mai was crumpled atop him. Their foreheads touched and their eyes met for a moment. An identical shade of crimson tinted their cheeks. Mai scattered backward, while Zuko tucked his legs to his chest and buried his head into his knees. How much would it cost to buy a new sister?
Princess Ursa called the children to lunch and Azula and Ty Lee dashed away, their intermingled laughter taunting them without end. Zuko glanced up to see Mai a few feet away from him, flexing an injured arm with a downtrodden expression. His eyes widened when he noticed a droplet of blood fall from her left palm and caress the grass below. "You're bleeding." Setting aside his humiliation, he crouched in front of her and took her hand into his own to observe the wound. It was a minor cut across the palm, nothing to worry about. But she certainly couldn't go around with a bloody hand all day. Unaffected by the girl's deepened blush, he reached into his pocket and produced a crimson handkerchief that was still neatly folded. He wrapped it around her palm, and she shivered upon feeling his skin brush hers. "Keep adding pressure to that," he instructed, edging back when he realized how close they had become. "I can't believe you were hurt because of my stupid sister."
Mai forced her lips move, uttering in a raspy voice, "It's alright. I just scraped it on a rock. Th-Thanks for…" She nodded toward the makeshift bandage.
His eyes were insistent as they met hers, inquiring and somewhat demanding. "Why do you let her do those things? I wouldn't call her much of a friend, the way she treats you and Ty Lee."
Mai pursed her lips, her eyes shifting from left to right as though Azula might appear out of thin air. "I'm honored to be Princess Azula's friend."
Zuko's puzzled expression gradually morphed into one of a knowing smile. He leaned forward once again to whisper into her ear, "I understand. My parents make me do things I hate too."
Seven days. That was the tradition, in the Fire Nation. When a nobleman wished to court a young lady, he would do so for seven days and await her answer on the eighth. With trinkets, flowers, poetry, and finely-crafted jewelry, he would hope to impress her by flaunting his money and good manners about. Etiquette was no stranger to fourteen-year-old Prince Zuko, though he wasn't entirely sure whether or not he could master the prospect of courting himself. He could hardly remember the proper layout of silverware at a banquet, let alone attempt to pry into the most intimate corridors of the female mind in an attempt to woo a member of their population. Nevertheless, he assured himself that he had witnessed enough attempts (both successes and failures) to understand the mechanics of courtship.
When he rose from bed the first day, he took extra care in making himself presentable. He washed thoroughly, smoothed out the creases in his crimson robes, and tied his hair up with symmetrical precision. He took a few minutes eyeing himself skeptically in the mirror, trying to align his posture in such a way that portrayed confidence, yet modesty. If his efforts went awry, he would not be able to amend his humiliation. In fact, he would most likely disown himself and join the Ember Island Players. He tucked his dagger into his shoe and exited his room to descend the stairwell that led to the palace gardens. He casually strutted throughout the grounds, nodding at each person he passed with a delicate smile.
When he laid his eyes on it, he knew it was the one. The most beautiful flower in the garden, a blood-red rose in full bloom. Ensuring that there was no one in sight, he drew his dagger and clipped the rose from its branch. He snipped off its thorns swiftly and tucked the flower into his sash, shrouding it with his tunic. Zuko proceeded down the hallway, well aware that his legs were trembling. His mind stemmed last-minute doubts:
Maybe I should ask tomorrow. Yeah, tomorrow wouldn't be so bad.
I think I may be coming down with something. Wouldn't want Mai to catch it.
I'm tired. I need a few more hours of sleep.
Zuko felt his breath leave him as he heard his own footsteps against the stone walkway of the external pavilion. There she sat in the adjacent corridor, beside Ty Lee and Azula who were engaged in an intensive game of Pai Sho. At least, it would have been intensive had Ty Lee understood the game. Someday Zuko would have to teach her how to play properly, so that she would stand some chance against his strategic sister. He forced his limbs to remain stoic and made some attempt to prevent blood from channeling straight to his face. He approached cautiously, as though to avoid any hidden traps that might have been set to hinder his motives. Ty Lee was the first to notice him, announcing his presence with a hearty greeting, "Morning Zuko!"
Zuko nodded, not quite trusting his mouth to form coherent words. He froze a few feet away when Mai glanced at him, her disinterest somewhat diminished as she offered him the smallest of smiles. Azula didn't bother to turn around, as she could never be swayed from attending to a competition. "Mai…" Zuko swallowed hard. This is it. He knelt down and pressed her lips to the girl's cheek momentarily, pulling away quickly as their interaction could be perceived as indecent from a passerby. Mai blinked a few times, her shock not to be outdone by her feigned boredom. He withdrew the rose from his sash and pressed it into the girl's hand with an awkward, cracked voice, "This is… um, this is for you." He stood and strode down the hallway before he had time to say anything stupid. When he rounded the corner he ducked, curling up behind the stone wall measuring a remarkable four feet. It wasn't the best hiding spot, but it would do. He waited a few painful moments before peeking over the wall. Mai was currently engaged in conversation with Azula, seeming completely unaffected. The rose was still clasped in her limp hand as she listened to Azula's commentary with a jaded expression.
"Seems like you could use a tip."
Zuko winced, whipping around to see Ty Lee looking down at him with a bright, yet pitying smile. "Tip? What do you mean?" He crossed his legs and folded his arms in some attempt to conserve his dignity.
"I think it's really sweet that you're courting Mai," she announced, seating herself next to the teenage boy. "However, like every sweet boy, you need a nudge in the right direction." Zuko's eyes narrowed in suspicion. How did he know this wasn't a trap? "Now, now, Zuko. Don't give me that look. I would never sabotage true love. Azula thinks you two make a great couple too! Even if it's only because she wants to spy on you!" She quickly changed direction upon noting the other's sullen expression. "Look, you're not doing a bad job. Any normal girl would be all over you by now. But that's just the point; Mai isn't a normal girl. She isn't impressed by flowers or exotic chocolates or beautiful silken gowns that she'd never wear. Remember, you're not courting just anyone. You're courting Mai. The point isn't to shower her with useless gifts- it's to remind you both of why you love each other. Give her something that lets her know she's someone you're choosing to be with."
Zuko brought his folded hand up to his lips thoughtfully, a smile tingeing his lips. "You're a genius, Ty Lee. I think I know what I need to do now."
She winked, ruffling his hair as she exclaimed, "Six days left!"
Six days… He'd have to try harder tomorrow.