Prompt #4: Sympathy
Watching Zuko from behind a row of sun baked bushes, Mai flinched. The prince tore clumps of grass from the soil, tossing them into the pond, heedless of the turtleducklings that swam frantic circles around their mother. He was crying. Mai could tell even from her hiding spot. Little smudges of dirt stained his cheeks. He'd been wiping away tears.
The little girl, just nine, bit the inside of her lip in concentration. She needed a plan of some sort. Flagrant displays of emotion discomfited her. She internalized her feelings, had been forced to really, so dealing with tears and such obvious sorrow would be a challenge. Words were no good. Mai didn't know what to say. Taking one hesitant step, she moved around the shrubbery. Out in the open now, exposed, Mai thrust her hands into her pockets and took another step forward. She peered around, making certain that Princess Azula was nowhere about.
Safe, she edged forward again. She rubbed a stone she kept inside her pocket, some pretty thing she'd discovered in her own back garden one day. It reminded her vaguely of a heart and Mai hoped one day to give it to Zuko.
When she was just a few feet away, Zuko took notice. He jerked his head up. His lip curled in a snarl and venomous words hung on his tongue. Mai blinked nervously but continued her trek. Once he realized it was Mai, not his sister, the prince relaxed, though he found it difficult to meet Mai's gaze.
"S, sorry," he murmured when the girl crouched beside him, arms hugging her knees tight.
She shrugged, feigning indifference. The turtleducklings and their mother seemed to have forgiven Zuko. They crowded the shoreline of the little pond, chirping and quacking, looking for something more substantial than dirt. The prince reached into a small sack that sat beside him and pulled out a piece of stale bread. Ripping it into tiny pieces, Zuko scattered the bits near the creatures and watched with the slightest of smiles as they gobbled them up, ravenous babies and protective mother.
He offered Mai a chunk, handing it over without looking. She followed his lead, tearing the bread into bite size morsels before laying them before the turtleducks. She smiled too, wondering at the frantic feeding of the creatures. They seemed desperate almost, as if afraid they might never eat again.
"What's wrong?" Her words hovered in the space between them, fragile things, softly spoken. She gave him the gentlest of nudges.
Zuko sniffled and swiped at his nose. Finally, he glanced up at her. His rich gold eyes swam with emotion. They were difficult for Mai to look at. "Lu Ten." His voice quavered. "My cousin, he's dead. He's gone and he's never coming back." Zuko buried his face in his knees. Small shoulders shook with his weeping.
Dead; someone was dead. How did you deal with that? What should she say? 'Sorry' was inadequate, though she was. Shifting a bit closer, she reached inside her pocket for the rock. It felt good in her hand, warm and solid. Mai would miss its weight.
"Here," she offered, holding out her hand, palm upwards, the rock flat on its surface. "I found this and I like it and it's yours."
Zuko gave her a quizzical stare before snatching the rock from her hand. He was warmer and his skin felt good. She would miss that too.
"Are you sure?" It was such a simple gift. Zuko was a prince, after all. What could a rock mean to him? But his face shone with gratitude now and something Mai took for affection. For a moment at least, she had assuaged his grief. "Thank you."
Mai nodded and they went back to feeding the turtleducks.
A/N: I hope you're enjoying these. Some future ones have been a real challenge and some I can't wait to share. Thanks for reading.