A Series of Firsts
Zuko was the first boy to dump her in a lake. He was trying to be helpful, and she knew that. He was trying to put out the flaming apple on her head, and she knew that too. But for a firebender, he sure picked the most embarrassing, awkward, inefficient way to do it.
Not that her sputtering, embarrassed self actually minded that much when he came up to her next to her mother later in court. She’d dried off, cleaned up, and was as surprised as her mother at the sheepish prince holding up a small bouquet of royal fire lilies.
He got out a stammering apology that made her blink in further surprise then pushed the flowers toward her enough that she realized she had to accept them.
Had to might not have been the right way to put it. She shyly took them from the crown prince of her nation, knowing that for once, her mother wouldn’t blame her for doing something too attention-grabbing if this was the sort of attention she grabbed.
“Thank you, Your Highness.” She curtsied as her mother expected, then stared as his cheeks flushed red.
He excused himself, and she buried her own face in the flowers to hide her smile.
They weren’t much older than kids the first time Mai managed to find herself alone with Zuko, rather than surrounded by the various chaperones and trainers of the prince and princess. They were playing hide and seek, and Azula was it. Zuko and Mai had clearly chosen the same large bush to hide in.
She stared at him and felt her own faint blush. It was embarrassing and she tried to will it away. What would her father say?
Zuko just stammered a bit then fell silent when he heard Azula pass by.
They waited a long moment, waited for her passage to move towards the trees where Ty Lee was certain to be hiding.
Mai glanced at the prince, then boldly leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. He was flushed scarlet as she pulled away, starting to stammer out a response.
She took off running then for the base, and he only realized a moment later she’d given herself a head start when Azula caught him.
“You weren’t actually very nice about it,” he pointed out, his tone less upset than his words.
“Wasn’t your idea of a proper first kiss?” she countered in a bored tone, just for the sake of it. She was obligated to make conversation, wasn’t she?
Just like she was obligated to come over here and play companion to the princess when requested. Just like she was obligated to attend court and wear beautiful dresses and be quiet and eligible for the sake of her father’s position. Just like she was obligated to wait here, staring out at the rain until Azula was actually ready for her attendance.
Zuko had grown up a bit since their gangly childhood playing hide and seek in the garden, and Mai was no longer allowed to scamper about anywhere unless it was by royal whim. They were supposed to be young adults now, training to fulfill the positions they were born to. She happened to think the extra years looked good on him, and the swords at his belt made her want to see how good he was with his blades. She’d love to show him how good she was with hers.
But she wasn’t here to see Zuko. She was here to see Azula, and she sighed because she was still waiting.
He turned to her, a brief look of determination on his face, then leaned over, and kissed her on the cheek.
She could feel her cheeks heating as he pulled away, and almost raised her hand to slap him. Instead, her fingers rested gently against her own face, as if she could still feel him there. She stared at him.
“Good evening, Mai.” He bowed most correctly and backed away, a pleased smile on his face.
It was the first time she could remember losing her composure completely.
The first invitation to the palace that came from the prince and not the princess arrived at her home days later. Very properly written, very appropriate for her parents to look over and consider, very worrisome.
Mai thought she’d hidden her crush fairly well, and with the way Azula talked about her brother, Mai wondered whether it was politically wise or foolish to answer such a summons. Not that there was really much choice in the matter, even if Zuko was clearly not the favored child.
She came dressed for a picnic, pleased that he’d placed them well away from where their “chaperones” were seated. There was a pretense of privacy at least.
“Good evening, Prince Zuko,” she greeted him, a repetition of his last words to her.
He didn’t start off too badly, tradition guiding the first words and actions they exchanged until she was settled on the blanket and peering into the basket to see what he’d picked.
“Did you talk to Azula about this?” she asked, somewhat disturbed to see her favorite dishes in there.
“Why would I talk to my sister?” he asked, seemingly sincere. “I just… You mentioned liking this meal when you were at the royal table last.”
Oh. He’d paid more attention than she had.
She dropped her hands from the basket lid and let him serve her while she studied him. He had a newfound strength in his body, doubtless from hours of practice with his dao, and she could appreciate his new height. He’d only gotten better looking, and his voice had deepened.
“I don’t have to invite you again,” he said quietly, that sheepish note back from his first apology to her all those years ago. “If you don’t want to.” He let his voice trail off, looked up at her with shy hopefulness in his eyes.
Mai felt odd for a moment, lightheaded with the warmth of having a choice. Zuko really wasn’t anything like his sister and father was he.
She took a slice of the tart he’d packed for dessert, even if she should have saved it for last like the Fire Nation lady her mother was successfully trying to transform her into. It almost made her giddy.
“You can invite me back.”
He smiled. She didn’t mind letting him see her smile back.0