Zuko finally found his bending when he was twelve, on the morning of his birthday. More than a decade of disappointment had driven him into a kind of partial-insanity on the night before - Kohaku's birthday - and once the celebrations were over, he stole away into the night and practised his forms over and over again, until he was practically sobbing with exhaustion and desperation.
It was then, as the sun broke over the distant horizon, that a puff of flame burst from Zuko's thrown-out fist, scaring the daylights out of him so badly that he cried out and dropped to the ground. For a moment, he wondered if his eyes were playing tricks on him, and that he really had gone insane. But when he leapt back to his feet and tried the same move, another burst of fire crashed into the air, bigger than the last. He sobbed again, this time with a grin upon his face, relieved tears running down his cheeks. It was the best birthday present he had ever gotten, even better than the time Lu-Ten gave him a pair of real duel swords.
He threw out his other fist, and the same thing happened. He laughed in pure, unmatched joy, and he did it over and over again, never tiring of the sight, not once realising how happily he laughed.
The sound of his mother's voice was like the icing on the cake. He turned and leapt for her, ignoring the fact that he was sweaty and dirty and she was still in her nightdress. "Mom, I did it!" he cried. "I'm a firebender!"
She hugged him close, smiling, taking pleasure in his joy. Of course she knew; there was nothing else in the world that could possibly make her Zuko laugh like that, without any force or wariness. As he giggled and cried and wiggled with his delight, Ursa held him close, listening to the alien sound of her youngest son actually happy.
"Finally," was Ozai's curt proclamation, once Zuko shared the news with the rest of the family. He sat casually, flanked by Kohaku and Azula, who shared his look of relief tinged with apathy. Ursa sat across from them with Zuko, who immediately shrank at her side, the smile vanishing from his once-glowing face. Kohaku suddenly grinned, his eyes boring into Zuko's, and the younger twin was unable to look away. "Now I finally have something of worth to show to my father."
Ursa blinked, her gaze sharp. "What are you talking about?" she answered. When she saw what kind of light was in his eyes, she waved a hand to the children. "Outside, go play," she commanded. Without hesitation, the three rose and ran out of the room, united in their understanding that such a command did not bode well. "Ozai, what are you talking about?" she repeated once they were gone.
Ozai's eyes sparked, his smile something shadowed by his eldest son and daughter. "Think of it, Ursa," he said, his voice a barely-contained whisper. "With Iroh stuck at Ba Sing Se and Lu-Ten at his side, we're right at my father's right hand - and with three firebending children!"
Ursa narrowed her eyes, fighting to keep the sudden sinking of her gut hidden from him. "Meaning?"
"Meaning, now is the time to present my bid for Crown Prince."
Ursa shut her eyes for longer than a blink. It was that old madness again, the one he had fancied and coddled as a teenager: finding a way to become the favourite of his father's while Iroh and Lu-Ten were occupied. He had spoken to her - at length - every time his older brother and nephew were away, and every time she shut him down with the curt words of, "We're not ready." or "Be sensible." Each time he had accepted her reprimand with an icy calmness, but this time, she knew, her words would fall on deaf ears.
But she tried, all the same. In a sudden burst of suppressed frustration, she snapped out, "Don't be a fool, Ozai. Your plans are folly, and you're dancing on tricky ground. If you keep pestering your father, he could turn volatile. Leave it be."
Ozai looked away from her, confirming her fears. He cemented them with the casually-thrown reply. "What you feel is folly, dear Ursa, will be my greatest success."
This time, she shut her eyes for far longer than a blink.
Try as he might, Zuko could never quite outstrip his siblings when it came to running. He winced when Kohaku reached out and grabbed his phoenix tail, shutting his eyes tight for the inevitable punch. However, his brother surprised him, for when no punch came and he opened his eyes, Kohaku was gazing at him with a solemn kind of respect.
"So," he said, his voice without the usual malice or disgust. He carefully released Zuko's hair. "You did it. You're a bender, now."
Zuko nodded slowly, looking down at his own feet. He never dared to look Kohaku in the eye much anymore - it scared him too much. "Just this morning," he muttered softly.
Azula pushed Kohaku aside, something he allowed with a smirk. Zuko blinked; he he tried anything like that, he would have been burned to a crisp. With sharp eyes, Azula peered right into Zuko's own. "I think you're lying, Zuzu," she said, her voice mocking. "I think you just want Father to look at you for once - especially since it's your birthday."
A bite of frustration hit him so hard, he clenched his fists. Azula had a quality to her that got under his skin, made him react. It was this that made her different from Kohaku: he made Zuko feel small and stupid, while Azula just made him feel angry and ashamed. "I'm not lying," he answered tersely.
"You are," Kohaku broke in, placing a hand atop of Azula's head. He was wearing his grin again, the grin that always made any kind of self-worth left in Zuko shrivel and die. "You're lying, and we can prove it."
Zuko could see what was coming a mile away. He jerked backward, feeling his knees shake. He hated being the subject of Kohaku's firebending, and he hated it more when Azula joined in. His firebending was new, newborn, even, and there was no way he could defend himself - especially since Azula herself was a bending prodigy. "Don't," he tried to plead. "Come on. Not today. It's my birthday. Please."
"Which is all the more reason to teach you a lesson," Kohaku answered. "Lying on your birthday? The nerve."
Zuko jumped back, trying to get as much distance from him as possible. Azula hung back, looking a little doubtful. Only Kohaku followed, his hands up and ready.
It was then that something wonderful happened.
Before, in many chance meetings, Zuko had been subjected to countless visits with Azula's two friends from the Girls' Academy. One of them - Ty Lee - was a vibrant sort of girl, prone to never staying in one place for longer than five minutes. She spent most of her time showing off in front of Kohaku or being bested by Azula, two things of which Zuko avoided to be a part of at all costs. When she came to visit, Zuko kept himself far away from whatever was going on, lest he become the target of amusement.
But Azula's second friend, Mai - a tall, long-limbed and pristine sort of girl - found these kinds of shenanigans dull and wasteful. Zuko found himself admiring her cool grace from far away, noticing - with loathing - that Kohaku noticed her, too. It was only when Lu-Ten left with Iroh for Ba Sing Se and Zuko was left alone that Mai spoke to him alone. She had sat down beside him, ignored his shrinking away, and told him she was bored and it was his duty to entertain him. Since then, they had been a strange sort of friends.
So when a small globe of fire burst to life above Kohaku's palm, a sick sort of grin alighting his face as he lunged for his twin, something sharp and metal zipped past him so fast it was hard to even see what it was - at first. It was only when it buried itself into the wall behind him that they saw it was a very small, very shiny knife.
"What do you think you're doing, Kohaku?"
All three siblings turned to see Mai stalking towards them, her cheeks red and her eyes flashing. Her hands were hidden in her wide sleeves, something that Zuko knew meant she was ready to fight. She reached them in a few strides, standing beside Zuko - much to Kohaku's chagrin.
Azula smiled upon seeing her friend, the smiling twitching ever so slightly upon seeing that friend stand beside her weaker brother. Kohaku wore a flawless grin, relaxing his stance at the sight of Mai. Despite being a year older, Kohaku never hid the fact that he found her wonderful, but Mai was having none of it. She merely glared at him, unmoving.
"Mai," he replied easily. "We're just playing. Zuko claims to be a firebender - I'm just making sure he's telling the truth."
From the corner of his eye, he watched Mai straighten up more. He swallowed a smile, knowing her well enough by now to understand what it meant: she was furious.
Wordlessly, she turned to Zuko and grabbed his hand. He reeled in surprise, since Mai wasn't one to offer much in terms of physical contact. Her fingers were long, her hand cool and dry. Something deep in his breast melted, and he looked up at her, grateful and - something else. Before he could figure it out for sure, she dragged him away.
"Mai!" Azula suddenly called, her voice high with what sounded like anxiety - an alien sound all in itself. "Where are you going?"
"I came to see you guys," she called over her shoulder, her face expressionless. "But you bore me."
As they rounded a corner, neither of them could miss Kohaku's derisive and loud reply of, "She'll come back. Zuko is, after all, worthless."
They sat down together under the biggest tree before the pond, an awkward shyness suddenly descending on them both. Gingerly, Mai let go of Zuko's hand, and she put her hands back into her sleeves.
Then, with her cheeks pink again, she snapped, "Kohaku is a such a jerk."
Zuko smiled at her, sitting up. It was the first time he had heard anyone say it out loud, and it was even more special coming from her. He nodded slowly. "Yeah," he agreed softly. "I can definitely agree to that."
Mai blushed deeply, turning her head away from him so that he only saw the slight curve of her cheek. "Whatever," she answered. "Anyone with a brain can see that."
"Tell that to Azula," he blurted without thinking.
But Mai nodded slowly. "I have. She won't listen." She turned to him, her cheeks still pink. "How can two brothers born from the same womb be so different?"
"I dunno," he admitted, looking down and fussing with his fingers.
Mai looked down as well. With a sigh, she pulled out one of her hands. In it was a small box. Zuko blinked at it, bemused, and she smiled. "It's your birthday, stupid - it's a present."
Zuko knew this, logically, but only his mother had given him a present so far - the obligation party with the rest of the politicians wasn't until the afternoon. He took it with shaking fingers, confused and almost scared that she was giving it to him. With fingers that felt more like wood than flesh, he opened it slowly. In it was a small medallion, carved with both a dragon and a phoenix, their tails intertwined and their heads bowed close together. The medallion itself was made of soft gold, light in colour. Tied to it was a long leather strip.
"It's a necklace," Mai blurted, her face scarlet. "Like a kind of amulet. Uncle said it would keep you safe, and I figured you needed it. Uhm," she looked down, fussing with the hems of her sleeves. In a soft voice, she added, "The colour matches your eyes."
Zuko stared at it, his heart racing. Without hesitation, he took it from its box and fastened it around his neck in as tight and complicated a knot as he could manage. He saw Mai watching from the corner of her eye, and when he tucked it under his shirt, patting the front of it, she smiled, the widest smile he had ever seen on her face.
Zuko was suddenly overcome with the ridiculous urge to kiss her, and he found himself staring at her lips without saying a word. But unbidden came the sudden thought that shamed him: What if she really does like Kohaku more than me?
He swallowed hard, lowering his eyes. "Thank you very much, Mai," he whispered mostly to his hands. He was thanking her for the gift, but also for her rescue.
For years, though, he would regret not kissing her under that tree.