Disclaimer: Me no owny.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Not While I'm Around

The fire crackled and glowed against the shadows of the trees and the darkness of the night sky, sparks dancing away from the smoke and flames to twirl away into the stars above. Sitting beside the fire, bathed in gentle oranges and yellows, Zuko slowly cleaned one of his broad swords. Occasionally he glanced away from his task to survey his two new companions.

He had not fled Bai Sing Se alone. Ty Lee currently lay on her belly on a tree branch, snoring softly and seeming perfectly content with her odd sleeping place. Mai was curled up against the tree trunk, her black locks falling across her eyes as she slept, her arm tucked beneath her head.

They had insisted on coming with him; or at least at the time, Mai had. Ty Lee had fidgeted and hesitated, but as they were leaving the gates she had caught up with them. Now they were all on the run, with no idea where they were going. Their only thought was to get away from Bai Sing Se.

That had been one week ago, and the three had more or less adjusted to traveling together. Zuko was becoming more and more aware of the fact that Mai had a soft spot for him; and he had to admit, the feeling was becoming mutual. But he held no illusions over what was to come.

Sooner or later, Azula would catch up with the small band. When that happened, he knew who she would go after; and it wasn't him.

Laying his sword down, Zuko walked around the fire and knelt over Mai's sleeping form. She had unwittingly put herself at the top of Azula's list of traitors by abandoning her and joining Zuko. When his sister finally caught up with them, the young assassin would be her primary target.

Zuko's hand clenched into a fist.

Every time, it seemed, he cared about someone, they were taken away from him somehow. First his mother, then Iroh (by his own foolishness), and now Mai was falling into that category.

Silently, slowly, he reached out and timidly brushed her loose hair out of her eyes.

"Zuko?" Her voice was soft, groggy with sleep, and for a moment he wondered if she would wake; but a sigh escaped her and she curled more tightly, falling back into slumber.

Something warmed inside Zuko at the sight; for a moment, Mai was stripped of all coolness, of her masks, and instead the innocence she tried so often to hide was bared.

It reminded all too strongly what would happen when Azula finally caught up with them and unleashed her fury.

"No." His voice was soft but firm, strong with anger and an unidentifiable emotion. "You're not going to die, Mai." He gently stroked her cheek. "You're not going to die. Not while I'm around."

It was a promise, and he knew it. It was a promise he intended to keep.

Zuko silently pulled away from the sleeping girl, moving back to his spot beside the fire; with one flick of his wrist the flames were extinguished. He glanced back at Mai for a moment before crawling onto his blanket, rolling onto his side with a sigh before closing his eyes.

Because his back was turned away, he did not see Mai open her eyes, studying his sleeping form quietly.

"She won't hurt you, either." Her voice was barely a whisper. "Not while I'm around."

Another promise.

With a sigh, she snuggled her head deeper into her arm and closed her eyes, once again falling back into slumber.

The End

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Yeah... because the only "cute" fic I ever actually wrote for these two was "Like This" when they were kids... yeah... so I just scribbled this down in like two minutes... I've been inspired to write a lot of Avatar lately...

Read and review, please!