Zuko took a deep breath. "Mai," he whispered.
Little did he know that Mai was giddily sitting up in the campsite, dreaming that perhaps he would whisper her name. She could barely believe it when he did.
She crept over to him. "Zuko?" she whispered back.
This was it. No mistakes here or all chance of escape would be gone. "Mai, I, uh, need to ask you something. I mean, I know something," he stumbled over his words. Zuko had never had this kind of conversation before.
"What is it?" Mai remembered to keep to her bored persona, to hide the anxiety in her heart.
Zuko was not one for fluff. It was better to be blunt and get it over with. "You liked me in the Fire Nation when we were little. And you know how I mean."
What a romantic way of putting it, Mai thought sarcastically to herself. Had he always been so straightforward? Suddenly she remembered that he had just put her on the spot.
Ever elusive, Mai replied with another question. "What about it?"
Zuko was silent for a minute. What did he say next? Here was a girl who had chosen him out of every man in the world, and she was the only one who could get him out of this mess. He had to say something, and it had to be good.
"I liked you too. I still do," he said, trying his best to sound earnest and feeling guilty about deceiving her so. People were always at their most vulnerable when they were in love.
Mai was in shock. Could he be lying? But he sounded so honest, and Mai had always been able to pick out a liar. If only she could have seen his eyes when he said it, she would know for certain. People's eyes always gave them away first. Still, she knew that his honor would compel him to tell her the truth. Her mind was made up; there was no time to lose.
"What are you doing?" he asked her quietly.
"Untying you. We have to get out of here before Azula returns," she replied as her fingers stumbled blindly over the knots.
That had been easy, Zuko thought. Almost too easy. Obviously she still loved him, and he felt remorse that he was playing a trick on her, a trick with deadly consequences.
As if a symbol of their reunion, the sun began to rise over the eastern horizon, illuminating all that it touched with its rays. "Hurry," Zuko urged her as she struggled with the key in his handcuffs. "Almost there," she replied. This was it; she was really going to betray Azula for love of him. The very thought made her fingers shake and her knees tremble.
She watched as the sunlight fell on the ground around her, along with the handcuffs and ropes.
The light revealed her own hands, quaking with fear and excitement at the same time. Zuko was turning around; she was standing up to meet him; their eyes were about to meet for the first time in three years, drawn out into a lifetime of agony. She remembered how it felt the few times in the past, those few times that she had looked into their wide golden depths. She looked into Zuko's face, and she saw…
Horror. A nightmare. A wicked scar spreading across his left eye. Crimson as blood, but expelling a blackness. His eye, once beautiful, was reduced to an angry slit, like the eye of a snake. His eyebrow was gone, his ear disfigured into a lump of burned flesh. This scar, it marred his once princely face beyond recognition.
This new face filled her with fear and crushing disappointment, for she realized that Zuko did not exist anymore. Prince Zuko had died in the Agni Kai she had so often heard about, and left this monster in his place.
Epiphany struck Mai in the face like an ugly rhino; she had not fallen in love. She had never been in love. Love was not physical attraction; it was something deeper than that. It was two souls who were created for the purpose that they might someday meet and be joined as one. How could Mai and Zuko have ever had that? They had never even spoken to one another before now, never shared secrets with one another, never gazed into each other's eyes, and, in short, never experienced anything together at all.
The attraction Mai had once felt for Zuko faded from her deluded mind. Young Mai had imagined such things about him, not the woman that she had since become. Young Mai was a fool.
"I am sorry, I have made a mistake," she said quietly, once she was over her shock. She avoided his eyes, avoided his whole face. The sight of it turned her stomach.
"What is that supposed to mean?" he asked, surprised. His plan was taking a frightening turn of events.
"It means I don't love you. I never have. And I never will, because I could never love a man who is…" she trailed off.
Zuko had a feeling that he knew what was coming. He said it anyway. "Who is what?" he asked her.
"Who is disfigured," she finished firmly, looking him resolutely in the eye at last. Her voice had a cold edge to it that matched her steely gaze. That edge cut into Zuko like a knife.
When she spoke again, her bored tone had returned. She was too good for him, and that sentiment was reflected in every syllable of her speech. "Just get out of here," she ordered him.
Zuko did so without a backward glance. She would figure out sooner or later that he had deceived her, used her. She had deceived him, too, hadn't she? Pretending to love him when all she had ever cared about were his looks. She deserved this.
When Azula found out about his escape, well, he would leave Mai to deal with that. She was the one who had decided to free such a repulsive, "disfigured" monster, and she would be the one to deal with the consequences.
After all, he had gotten all that he had wanted: freedom, a second chance at the Avatar, and a second chance at his honor.
Apparently he was willing to step on anyone and anything to get it.