"Azula!" I called. The young princess paused in her bending practice and turned to me.
"Do you know where Zuko is?"
The twelve year old frowned slightly. "You'd rather see him than me?" she asked skeptically. Her tone was icy and a familiar sensation of fear chilled my blood. But I had learned to restrain my emotions. I didn't let my fear show.
"No, princess," I replied calmly, "That's not it. It's just that I haven't seen him yet today and was wondering if he was alright."
Her hazel eyes bore into mine, searching for a possible motive for seeking out her brother. Apparently she was unable to see through my expressionless face. "He's out in the garden. Something about an Agni Kai."
"Thank you, princess." I bowed and ran off in the direction of the garden.
Despite how often Azula would put Zuko down, I had always had my own thoughts about him. I appreciated him more than anyone else in my life. He wasn't like Azula. She expected to be treated like a princess. But even though Zuko was prince and was next in line to be Fire Lord, he just wanted to be treated like a friend, and I respected him for that. We spent our free time with each other, forgetting our troubles and living in the present. I started spending more time with him after his mom died. That was the time when we needed each other's presence the most. I never thought about my feelings about him to be romantic until I was about twelve. Even then, I wasn't so sure if what I was feeling was just a strong bond of friendship.
Sure enough, Zuko was in the garden practicing his firebending. In the middle of a kick, he caught sight of me out of the corner of his eye. He lost his balance, arms flailing, and hit the ground with a thud.
"Real smooth," I greeted sarcastically. He stood and gathered what little dignity he had left. "Where have you been all day?" I asked, making an effort to sound like I really didn't care.
Zuko sat against the trunk of the apple tree and patted the ground, signaling for me to sit down next to him. Once I had, he said, "I went to a war meeting this morning." He paused, waiting for my reaction. I remained expressionless. He went on, "And I kind of
disrespected a general."
"They were going to sacrifice new recruits!"
I set my jaw. I could see how Zuko would oppose such a decision. "Now what?"
"Well, you know as well as I do. It can only be settled one way- Agni Kai." He looked out at the setting spring sun to tell the general time of day. "I have about thirty minutes until I need to be at the arena. Do you want to watch?"
I ignored his question. "Are you sure you can take a general?"
"It shouldn't be hard at all," he assured. "This guy is pretty old."
A smile slipped out of me, but I was sure to extinguish it quickly.
"You never answered me."
"Are you coming, or what?"
"Of course." The words tumbled from my mouth before I could even think about them. Of course I'd be there.
When the sky had been painted a brilliant orange as bright as fire itself, the Agni Kai arena was filled with curious citizens. I sat next to Ty Lee rather than Azula. Most of the time the bubbly acrobat was better company than the calculating princess. I recognized Zuko at one side of the arena, crouched down with his back turned to his opponent. I couldn't see the man at the other end very clearly, but he didn't look very old. Could Zuko have mistaken? Who was this person? Suddenly it occurred to me, and my hands flew to my mouth.
Ty Lee noticed my sudden change in demeanor. "What's the matter?" she asked innocently.
"He doesn't have to fight the general. Zuko spoke out in his father's war room. He has to fight the Fire Lord!"
As if on cue, the two competitors stood and turned to face each other. Zuko was dumbfounded. The audience stirred. Few to none had ever witnessed a Fire Duel between father and son, especially when they were Fire Lord and Fire Prince. Ty Lee squealed in surprise. Zuko went down on his hands and knees, begging for forgiveness. But Ozai insisted that he fight for his honor. I could see the tears streaming from his cheeks as he again refused to fight his father.
"You will learn respect," the Fire Lord boomed, "And suffering will be your teacher." A spark ignited in his hand. As soon as Zuko lifted his face to look at his father, Ozai sent flames surging towards his own son.
"Zuko!" I screamed, but my voice was drowned out in the roar of the crowd. How could they have been enjoying this?
Zuko's hands went to his face and he cried out in agony. He lay on the ground, consumed in a sort of pain I could never comprehend. I wanted to jump into the arena and help him, but I knew I couldn't. The emotions surging through me were stronger than I had ever experienced, and it was extremely difficult to mask them with my usual look of indifference. I bit my lip in anticipation.
Ozai sauntered over to his injured son. "You're such a disgraceful fool. Why can't you be more like your sister?" A wave of hatred came over me, and I was surprised by it. It was shameful to ever have such thoughts about the Fire Lord, the glorious leader of our nation. "You are hereby banished and stripped of your birthright. I want you out of my sight by morning!" Zuko was still curled up in a fetal position with his hands covering his face. The Fire Lord was furious. "Get up! Get up, I say! You can't wallow in misery forever!" Zuko did not respond in any way. "I'll offer you a deal," Ozai said, sounding more cynical than angry now. "If you come back to me with the Avatar, I'll consider granting you your honor back. Assuming he is still alive." With that, the leader of the most powerful nation in the world left the arena with nothing more to say to his son.
Zuko's uncle was the first one by his side. Ty Lee and I were the next. Iroh tried to get him to reveal his face, but he refused. He was still sobbing. Azula came over casually to take note of her brother's condition. She harrumphed and stormed off. I wasn't really sure why she acted that way. I bent down to Zuko and set my hand on his arm. He was trembling.
"Zuko," I said soothingly, "Please let him help you." Seeing him like this made my heart heavy with grief, and I didn't think I could take it any longer.
I heard him sniff, and he took his right hand off his face, still hiding the injury. I helped him to stand and Iroh led him away. I stared after them, still numb from shock. I still wasn't really sure what was going on. I'd heard Ozai's words perfectly clear, but I would need a while before the meaning of them truly sank in.
That night, I lay in bed, unable to sleep. The Fire Lord's words rang in my ears like a nightmare that escaped the boundaries of my dreams. "You are banished," he had said. Banishment was about the equivalent of a death sentence. If our enemies didn't figure out you were Fire Nation and annihilate you first, you usually starved to death in the wild. I wriggled further under the covers. My room had been the only place I could get my feelings out in private.
Another thought occurred to me. Ozai had also said that Zuko should be gone by morning. That would mean I wouldn't even have the chance to say good-bye. I couldn't let that happen.
I jumped out of bed and pulled on my usual outfit. I didn't even bother to put up my hair. I just worried that I was already too late. I crept through my dark house and slipped soundlessly out the door. I was thankful that we lived so close to the royal palace; it was only directly across the cobblestone street.
Once at the front entrance, I met two stiff-looking guards. One perk of being a general's daughter is that you get special privileges when it comes to palace security.
"Hello, Kozai," I greeted as if nothing were unusual. "I just need to talk to Zuko for a minute." I began to walk through the door, but he stepped in my path. I frowned.
"I'm sorry, Mai, but we can't let you in. We have strict orders straight from the Fire Lord that no one comes in or out until morning."
"I understand." I turned on my heel. I knew I needed to find another way in. There was an entrance to the east that was rarely guarded. Once there, I saw it was manned by only one guard, who apparently fell asleep on the job. I crept past him, easily gaining entrance.
I snuck my way turning down the familiar hallways down to Zuko's room. I froze against the wall when I heard voices emanating from the room beside me. "Are you really going to banish your own son?" a voice said. I recognized the tea-loving old man.
"Yes. He must learn respect." Ozai, obviously.
"But why take such drastic measures, my lord?"
"So he will never forget."
"But how will he survive elsewhere? He is a prince, born and bred. He knows nothing of the wilderness."
"That is up to him to figure out."
There was a pause until Iroh continued, "I will go with him."
There was another short silence while the Fire Lord thought. "Very well," he answered.
"Thank you, brother."
I heard footsteps make their way towards the doorway. I pressed my back up against the wall, praying no one would notice me lurking there. Iroh walked out and turned in the other direction. He turned another corner and was out of sight. I remained undetected. I let out a sigh of relief and scurried away down the hall.
His bedroom door was cracked open, so I peered through to see if he was alone. He sat on his bed, just staring and saying nothing. I figured it was safe and pushed open the door. The sight of me seemed to startle him. He jumped off the bed and was at my side in a flash.
"Mai! What are you doing here?" he asked in a hushed tone. His visible eyebrow raised in concern. His other eye was covered by a white cloth patch.
"Calm down. No one saw me."
He relaxed a bit, but I still saw the concern in his eyes. Or, well, eye. "You look nice with your hair down."
I never really thought about my hair much. It was long, smooth, and jet black. I never liked it when it would hang in my face, so I always kept it neatly up. "I didn't come all the way here to talk about my hair," I said with a sad smile. His face darkened. "How's your eye?"
"It still hurts, but it's doing much better."
"What does it look like?" I asked, the curiosity growing inside of me.
He shrugged. "I don't know. I haven't seen it yet."
"Could I take a look?"
"If you want to."
I reached up to his face and took hold of the pad between my fingers, not really sure what to expect. I peeled it away, and the sight nearly knocked the wind out of me. I made a conscious effort not to give away my surprise. The presence of blood did not surprise me, but what did was the extent of the burn. In some places, his skin had been burned to a black crisp. I replaced the patch over his eye.
"Is it really that bad?" Zuko was the only person who could ever read me. I didn't answer him. "I want to see it."
"Are you sure?"
He nodded and I followed him to the washroom attached to his bedroom. We stopped in front of the mirror, where Zuko took off the patch. When he caught sight of his reflection, he froze. I knew what he was thinking. That it was going to leave a scar, and a pretty prominent one, too. And that scar would always be a reminder to him of the Agni Kai duel, and of his banishment, and of his shame.
Without thinking twice about it, I lunged forward and wrapped my arms around him. I guess I just needed him to know that someone actually cared about him. At first, he was just surprised and stood with his arms outstretched while I clung to him. He softened, though, and brought his arms around me like a thick, warm blanket. It was so comforting there in his arms, and I wished that he didn't have to leave so I could stay with him forever. I felt a small bit of pressure on the top of my head. What was that? Did he kiss me, or was he resting his chin on my head? The pressure lifted. He definitely kissed me. I thought my reaction would be different, but the gesture actually relaxed me.
My thoughts were interrupted by a light rapping on the door. "Prince Zuko?" a muffled voice asked, "May I speak to you for a moment?"
We let go of each other, and I felt a bit empty without him. "Stay here," he said sternly. He disappeared into his room. "You can come in, Uncle."
I held my breath as I listened in on their conversation.
"The Fire Lord has granted me permission to accompany you."
"You don't need to do that."
"I could be a great help. I have allies-"
"I don't need your help," he insisted.
"Please be reasonable. I could help you in your search for the Avatar."
There was silence as Zuko thought about this offer. "Alright, Uncle."
"Finish packing and then try to get some rest. I will wake you before sunrise." I heard the door open. "Oh, and I won't tell anyone she's here." He closed the door.
I stepped out, and Zuko still wore a perplexed expression. "How did he-?"
I shook my head. "I have no idea."
He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "You want to help me pack? It's hard for me to decide what I want to bring with me."
"Sure," I said, making my way toward the bag that lay out on his bed. "What do you have packed so far?"
"Just a few changes of clothes . I don't really know what I need."
I wandered over to his nightstand and opened up the top drawer. Inside, there was a book, a few candles, and a sheathed knife. I picked up the latter item and turned it over in my hands. "Why don't you bring this? It would be useful." I handed it to him and he put it in the bag.
We added some pictures of his family, but I really couldn't think of anything else he would need or want. We sat on his bed with our backs against the headboard, not saying anything. After a while, I finally mustered up the courage to tell him. "I'm really going to miss you," I whispered.
I couldn't believe it when I saw it, but a tear rolled down his cheek. "I'm going to miss you, too."
"Why are you crying?"
"Because I'll never see you again."
The Fire Lord's words sprang to my mind once more. "Maybe you will. Remember what your father said about the Avatar." He nodded slowly, processing the thought. "Don't give up just yet."
He turned his head to look at me, and the sorrow in his eyes nearly killed me. Tears pooled in my eyes. I couldn't stand it anymore. Having the only person I truly cared about taken away from me. His gaze softened, and that familiar warm feeling in my stomach made a reappearance. I needed to tell him. Before he left.
"Zuko, there's something I've been meaning to tell you for a while now," I confessed, heat rushing to my cheeks. I turned my head to hide the blush. His hand caressed my cheek and he gently turned my head back toward him. Then he closed the gap between our lips. It was a completely new and exciting sensation. I was just starting to enjoy it when he jerked away.
"Sorry," he apologized, his face bright red with embarrassment.
"Don't be. You practically read my mind," I said with a smile.
He smiled back. It was a genuine Zuko-smile that made my heart jump when I see it.
"I'll be waiting for you," I said. "So hurry up and find that Avatar." I poked him playfully in the chest. He laughed and put his arm around me, something he did a lot lately. I had always taken it as a friendly gesture, but now it was different. I rested my head on his shoulder, feeling completely comfortable. Suddenly I was reminded of how tired I really was. It must have been after midnight. Despite my fatigue, I didn't want to leave. Not when our hours together were numbered. I could vaguely sense his fingers running through my hair. It surprised me how naturally comfortable it felt. My eyelids, heavy as lead weights, finally closed, and my mind was consumed by dreamless sleep.
When I woke, Zuko seemed to be studying me. The burn over his eye looked worse in the low light of dawn. A dark circle hung below his other eye. "You slept, right?" I asked groggily.
"Yeah," he said without looking me in the eye. Of course he hadn't. If I were in his situation I wouldn't have been able to, either.
Then reality hit me. "What time is it?" I asked, trying my best not to seem frantic.
"Just before sunrise."
"I have to go." I stepped onto the floor and stretched out the crick in my neck. "If my parents find out I snuck out, they'll kill me."
He stood as I made my way to the door. I peered back at his face, so full of sorrow and uncertainty. A face too young to be tortured with such problems. "I guess this is good-bye," he said so quietly it was nearly inaudible. He rubbed the back of his neck.
I acted on impulse, something I rarely let myself do. I threw my arms around him and buried my face in his neck. As he brought his own arms around me, I could feel the salty tears pressing on my eyelids to escape, but I refused to let them through. "Bye, Zuko." I let go and fled the room before he could see me cry. But as I closed the door, I couldn't help but take one more lingering look into his eyes before he left me forever.