(i know our antebellum innocence
was never meant to see the light of our armistice day.)
When he is fifteen and one-half years old, Lu Ten falls in love. She is younger than him, by too much, but her eyes are bright with knowledge that doesn't pass her lips and her face holds the ghost of great beauty, waiting to bloom.
Her name is Mai.
"What are you hiding from?" he asks, and the girl starts, her eyes wide and fearful. She is sitting on the far end of the garden, under the shade of a tree, and watching Azula play with an acrobatic girl with something like hunger on her face.
"Nothing," she replies in a very low whisper, and bows, probably just like she's been taught, "Prince Lu Ten."
"Oh, forget about the honorifics," he says jovially, sitting down next to her. "I'm just Lu Ten. What's your name?"
"Mai," she answers, in the same soft whisper.
"Mai? That's a pretty name," he muses, and watches her. She won't make eye contact, instead examining the grass with a fiery intensity that almost hides a deep fear. "You don't have to be scared of me," he assures, and she glances at him quickly and then back down.
"'m not supposed to talk," she murmurs, her voice slightly hoarse.
"Says who?" he asks, incredulously.
"Mother. And father," she replies, glancing at him. "A woman is to be seen and not heard," she quotes, and her face screams that she disagrees, but her body language speaks of uncertainty and pain.
"I don't hold to that," Lu Ten says quietly, watching the pretty girl. He reaches out and brushes her bangs away to expose her eyes. "I'll bet you're smart, aren't you? Why don't you play with Azula and... that other girl?" he asks, and Mai turns away from his hand, hiding behind her hair in what must be a familiar move.
"She's a princess," Mai whispers. "Not supposed to talk to people better than me."
Lu Ten almost laughs at this, but then realizes how sad it is. "Azula's not better than you," he tells her, and she looks at him uncertainly. "She's just another girl. And besides, how do you think anyone gets anywhere if they don't speak to anyone they think is better than them? No," he continues, shaking his head, "I think you should go play. They look like they're having fun. Don't you want to have fun?"
"Not supposed to have fun," she mutters, and Lu Ten stares at her for a moment.
"Well, then, do you want to go have tea with my father? That's about as far from fun as you can get." The tiniest of smiles appears on her lips, and Lu Ten thinks that she has a lovely smile.
"Tea with Prince Iroh?" she asks, eyes wide. "Would I be... allowed?"
"Of course," Lu Ten replies, "although I don't know why you'd want to. Come on," he insists, standing up and holding out his hand. The younger girl bites her lip, but then takes his hand and stands. Her hand is soft and tiny, and reminds him suddenly of Aunt Ursa. "We'll have tea with Father, and you'll see that it's the most boring thing in the world, and that you would much rather be playing with Azula."
She blushes the color of a dusty rose when she leans forward and kisses him on the cheek, an hour before he and his father are to travel to Ba Sing Se. "For luck," she says, in that quiet, husky voice of hers. "You'll come back soon, right?"
"Of course," he replies brightly, even though he's far more afraid than he'll admit. "And I'll bring back some nice Earth Kingdom jewelry or something for you and Azula and... Ty Lee, is it?" Mai nods. "Right. All three of you will get the best that money can buy from Ba Sing Se. I promise."
She cocks her head and that tiny smile appears on her face again, "What does Ba Sing Se have for Fire Nation girls?"
Lu Ten smiles, "Oh, you'll see. I'll find a... a silk tapestry or a beautiful figurine. Earth Kingdom artisans are known for being some of the best in the world. I'll make sure you get only the best, my little Mai."
Her eyes twinkle when he calls her that, and she almost smiles. "You had better," she says softly.
"You can be sure of it. Watch out for Zuko for me, will you?" he says, and tweaks her nose. She makes a face.
"I'll try. You just make sure you come back safe."
"I will, little Mai," he assures her, reaching out and messing up her impeccably-styled hair and smirking. "Don't hide anymore, okay? Go out and play and be as loud and obnoxious as you can be, and when your parents get mad at you, tell them that Prince Lu Ten ordered you to do it, okay?"
A genuine grin lights up her face, and she nods. "Of course, Lu Ten."
He hesitates, and watches her carefully, before leaning forward and kissing her full on the mouth - it's a chaste, closed-mouth kiss, but he can feel her gasp of shock. When he pulls away, her eyes are closed and her cheeks are red, and she leans up to maintain the kiss for as long as possible. "Goodbye, Mai," he says seriously, sounding older than sixteen, and for a moment, she looks older than eight.
"Goodbye," she whispers, and he turns away from the Fire Nation.
Six hundred days, one hundred and twenty-eight letters, thirty skirmishes, fourteen wounds, and a half of a breath later, Lu Ten is shot in the chest by an arrow. It hits him hard in the right lung, knocking him off his feet, and he knows - the way any soldier would - that this is a mortal wound.
He coughs hard around the shaft and stares at it, his breath coming in short gasps. He can hear people all around him screaming, and from somewhere far away, his father is howling, a single, wordless bray like that of a wounded animal. Hands grasp at his shoulders and arms and legs, trying to soothe him, to save him, and they lift him up onto a makeshift stretcher, carrying him off the battlefield.
All he can think of is a little girl with wide, intelligent eyes and a soft voice, and he thinks that now she won't have any excuse to act up. It's a stupid thing to think while he's coughing up his life and while everyone is shouting to save the crown prince, but it's what he thinks of anyway.
Mai is such a pretty girl. She shouldn't be forced into a life of stuffy nobility. She should be allowed to be free and happy, to show off her beautiful smile and her biting wit and her rose-colored blush. And then he thinks, I couldn't keep my promise.
And then: Father, I'm sorry.
And then nothing.
Mai does not cry when the news hits the capital that the crown prince is dead. Instead, she folds herself behind her porcelain, noble mask and decides to be silent and do as she's told. Her parents sigh with relief at the knowledge that Mai's rebellious stage seems to have passed, and pat her on the head like a pet, telling her that they are proud of her for seeing reason.
She wants to scream, but instead she nods, and remembers - remembers a kiss from a handsome, older boy who ruffled her hair and made promises he couldn't keep - remembers the shade of a tree and an invitation to boring tea - remembers the taste of hope, that she might one day be allowed to break free. She buries it all under silk clothes and ornate hairstyles and the emotionless, cold facade that makes her parents so happy, and she thinks that she just might suffocate from it all.
She goes back to hiding under the tree, and vaguely hopes that another prince might save her.
A/N: Title and inspiration comes from the song Antebellum by Vienna Teng. Let me know what you think.