I don't own the Avatar, so please don't sue. Slight hints of Maiko, probably Kataang if you squint. This takes place after the end of book two, possibility of what might happen. Speculative one-shot.
Toph's head was pounding as she slowly became aware of the cold metal under her cheek. Her mind idly traced back to the last thing she remembered. Iroh had been captured in his nephew's moment of treachery, and Aang's apparent indifference towards his savior upon waking up had made her so angry she had actually stomped off fully intending to try and rescue her old friend on her own.
Thankfully, the others had decided to catch up with her, but as always their plan fell upon some complications. They reached the correct cell just as the change of the guard was upon them, having stolen uniforms to sneak their way in and somehow getting through fairly undetected. However, they had not accounted for one Prince Zuko waiting for them outside his Uncle's cell. Apparently he was just as surprised to see them as they were to see him, and once their intent became clear he let them pass without any trouble. Just keep him safe, was all he said.
They probably would have escaped had Azula not shown up right then. She took one look at the scene, readied her lightning, and pointed her fingers at her brother. After that things began to get a bit fuzzy, she seemed to recall someone running into Azula, throwing off her aim, but for some reason she couldn't place who. There had been a lot of shouting and running around at that point, guards and Dai Lee swarming in from everywhere. The quick and bendy one had managed to get within her defenses as she covered the rear of her friend's escape, two extra bodies in tow, and the last thing she remembered was a the sharp stab of something at the back of her neck.
Sitting up slowly, she blinked as she gingerly rubbed the sore spot.
"So, you're finally awake."
Toph leapt to her feet, ignoring the way her head hammered as she tried to get a bearing on where she was. "Who's there?!"
"You can relax," the voice droned back, Toph's keen ears identifying one of Azula's followers as her feet showed her a figure slouching against the far wall of their small cell. "We're stuck here."
Toph stayed standing, though her stance relaxed some. "What happened? Why are you here with me?"
"Betrayal usually results in some sort of punishment," came the flat reply.
"You were the one that stopped Azula," guessed the earth bender, crossing towards her cellmate. "Why?"
"Iroh did not deserve the fate he would have received at Firelord Ozai's hands," the other girl finally replied. "I saw you when you first entered the palace. Your passage was easy because I continually led the guards astray. The prince was ready to let you pass for his uncle's sake, but Azula wished to taunt Iroh again…there was nothing I could do to stop her."
Toph's mouth curled slightly. "The lightning bolt was not pointed at the old man."
"No," her cellmate agreed slowly. "It wasn't."
"Is he worth it?"
"I don't know, I didn't think, I just reacted…" There was a beat of silence, and then, "And now I'm going to die."
"Fortunately for you, I'm not ready to die just yet," Toph said as she nudged the girl roughly with her foot. "Get up."
She could practically feel the dull eyes glare at her. "Why?"
Toph's grin grew. "You want to find out if he was worth it, right? Then let's get out of here."
Her companion's voice was skeptical. "You can get us out of here?"
"I can." There was a certainty in the young bender's voice that was difficult to ignore.
"Hm…what do I have to do?"
Mai had been watching through the grate in the door for an hour, timing the appearances of the guards as they slowly patrolled the dungeon halls one by one. The plan they had put together was solid, even if she still wasn't sure how certain parts of it were going to work. As long as the earth bender held up her end, though, she thought they might have a chance. "There's a consistent fifteen minute gap," she finally said with a fair amount of confidence. "A little longer, if we're lucky."
"Tell me the moment the next one is out of sight."
Mai watched out of the corner of her eye as the earth bender crouched before the door, her hands sliding along its surface as she tapped it softly with the pads of her fingers. "He's here," she suddenly said, moving out of sight as he passed their door before going back to the grate to watch his back as he left. If only she had one of her stilettos, she could send it right through the back of his neck…! "He's gone," she said as soon as he rounded the corner, backing away as the earth bender suddenly jammed her hands against the door roughly. The metal creaked for a moment, and then fractured inwards as shoved by a great force. Falling from its hinges, Toph caught it before the top could clatter to the floor, putting it back inside the cell before turning to her companion. Together they made their way down to the guard post at the end of the hall, empty for the moment but also holding their few possessions which Toph quickly stuffed in a bag and slung over her shoulder. She had insisted it was necessary, and Mai wouldn't say she wasn't glad to have her stilettos close at hand once more.
"You know the way out, right?" The blind one asked as she made sure the straps were secure.
"Good. You lead; I'll tell you if someone's coming."
There were only a handful of times Mai had felt more vulnerable in her life. All of them, with the exception of one, involved Azula in some shape or form, but she tried not to dwell on that as they crept down the hall as quickly as they dared.
"No one is there in those directions," Toph said suddenly, pointing straight ahead and to their right. "There is someone down there." This time she motioned to the left.
Mai carefully glanced in all directions as they made it to the crosswalks with the halls, quickly making her decision before running down the corridor on the right. The further up they went to the surface the more often they were forced to hide when someone was coming, but it wasn't long before they were making their way to the outer wall of the palace on the backside where the stables and supply bins were. Into the stable they slipped, Mai pilfering a messengers uniform along the way that she quickly changed into while Toph 'kept watch' with her hands to the ground. Saddling one of the messenger mounts there, a swift ostrich-horse, she also took one of the pre-packed bags with journey food and pulled Toph up behind her and under her cape before spurring the beast as hard as she could towards the nearest gated.
"Important message let me through!" she bellowed as she had watched others do before, the watchmen opening the gates quick enough that she was only forced to slow for a second before sprinting out into the street. No check was made as to who she was or where she was going, after all, who would want to leave the castle once inside? Prisoners, of course, tried to escape from time to time, but everyone knew bending metal was impossible and even if they managed to get out of the cell the dungeons were a maze only benders and those familiar with the paths could easily get out of without being caught.
Toph clung determinedly behind her, suddenly remembering why she hated riding on the backs of creatures, she was blind as a bat and unless it was Appa or something equally massive she was also constantly under the impression she was about to fall off. Her companion was thankfully a well-trained rider, and soon their pace smoothed out as they made their way through the twisting roads of Ba Sing Sei. It was a fairly straight shot to the outer wall and the gate that led out to the wilds where refugees streamed in from. The only problem now was making it there before Azula noticed their absence.
Ty Lee was practicing her usual gymnastics, trying to keep her mind off the fact that in a short while the Princess would be calling for Mai in what would likely end up being a public execution. She would have to watch, too, to prove her loyalty. Why did Mai have to go and do that?! Everyone knew she had a crush on the prince as a child, but even Azula was convinced that Mai's heart had become cold and hard so her rather random defense of the traitor was an unpleasant surprise.
She was in the process of wondering if there was someway to induce a serious bout of illness that would keep her in bed for the rest of the day without catching Azula's eye when one of the alarms in the lower part of the palace went off. Immediately she went back to the throne room where Azula sat, surrounded by Dai Lee as she awaited the report from Long Feng. It wasn't long before he entered the room, kneeling before the princess slowly.
"We have a situation," he said carefully as the Princess tapped her fingers on the arm of the chair. "It seems some prisoners have escaped…"
Long Feng seemed to cower as he softly replied, "The blind earth bender that traveled with the avatar…and your former assistant Mai…"
Mai and Toph made their way through the parting sea of refugees, disappearing into the sparse forest as soon as they were able. The sound of gongs suddenly reverberated from the walls, several shouts following behind them as they broke from the path and began to make their way among the rocks and trees.
"They'll find our trail quickly," Mai muttered aloud as they continued to ride along, slowing the beast to a quick walk so as to not tire it completely. "Which way?"
"Just a moment…" Toph slid to the ground, feeling it for a moment before she nodded off in front of them and a little to the right. "That way. It's the Serpent's Pass."
"That doesn't sound promising…"
"A sea serpent or an angry fire princess?"
Her companion was silent before muttering, "Serpent's Pass it is. Let's go."
"Not yet." Toph quickly pulled the bag from her back that held all of their things and searched through it, finally pulling out a white whistle in the shape of a bison with horns sticking from its head. Her companion took that moment to reattach some of her holsters with their weapons, feeling somewhat more secure now that she was once more armed. Putting the whistle to her mouth, Toph let out two short blasts of air that Mai listened to unimpressed.
"It's broken," she said loftily as she cast her eyes behind them. "Now hurry up, we need to go."
"No, it's not," Toph replied as she stuffed it in her tunic. "But you're right. Let's go." Leading the way through the underbrush, Mai didn't comment if Toph chose to remain afoot. After all, that meant she didn't have to share the mount and that was less energy she had to expend over all. It was late at night when they finally stopped, Toph still putting the whistle to her mouth and blowing in it ever so often. They made a cold camp, understanding a fire would be far too dangerous at this point and slept huddled on the same side of the mount with the poor beast still saddled should they need to run at a moment's notice.
"You are putting a lot of trust in me, your enemy," Mai suddenly said as they shared some of the hard bread and cheese between them with a few sips of water to drink. "Why?"
"You won't betray me," Toph replied simply with an easy shrug. "You've already betrayed your mistress; she probably wants to kill you. Your only hope of survival is with me."
"She may spare me if I were to bring you back," reasoned Mai as she watched the girl with lidded eyes. "She may even restore me to my former position."
"But she will also know your weak spot, him," Toph replied slowly. "And neither will you be trusted with anything important. Is it worth it, staying in that viper's nest just for the honor of your position? Besides, you still want to know if he was worth it, you can't find out if you never find him. He will be with my friends, and you need me to find them."
Her companion had no reply for that, and so they settled together to sleep with their backs facing each other for warmth. Toph, of course, was asleep the moment her eyes closed but Mai remained awake for much of the night contemplating what she had said.
"You don't know that she made it out," Zuko argued uselessly, eyes bleary despite the late hour of day. No one had stirred until midmorning from traveling through the night, and since that point had been working out a plan to get their friend back. "Unless the blind chit can bend metal…"
"Zuko, the girl was brave enough to come and try to save me, do not disrespect her now," Iroh interjected quickly, coming between his hot-headed nephew and the fuming Avatar. "If her friends wish to go after her now then they will and there is nothing you can say to dissuade them."
"If she's still alive, she won't sit around quietly, she'll look for a way to get out," Sokka said from where he threw the packs onto Appa's back. "We need to find out if Azula has her or not."
"We'll start in the city, and then work out something from there," added Aang as he turned his back on the Fire Nation pair. "Are you coming or not?"
Zuko snarled, turning away from him sharply. "I don't see us having a choice."
"Fine, then get on and-"
Appa's ears perked up as he suddenly lunged to his feet, eyes rolling in his sockets as he whined deep in his throat.
"Easy!" called Aang as he jumped on his friend's head, rustling through his shirt to come up empty handed. "My whistle…"
Mai held up an arm over her face as they crashed through more low underbrush, her fellow rider clinging to her back tight enough to make her ribs protest. The poor beast was foaming at the sides of its mouth, eyes wide and glassy as its chest heaved for air, it would not last long if they continued at this pace. The Dai Lee had picked up their trail about mid-morning, signaling others as the pair tried to stay ahead of their advancing forces. The white whistle was held firmly in the earth-benders mouth, each breath forcing more air through it in a desperate attempt to summon her friends.
It was hard not to recall the early hours of morning, though groggy and both of them somewhat snappish with hunger and fatigue with a sort of longing as at least it had been more peaceful than this.
Any and all trains of thought, though, came crashing to a halt as their ride tripped over some loose rocks and went sprawling head over heals. Both females were thrown in the air, landing heavily before they forced themselves to their feet out of desperation. Mai limped heavily on one leg and Toph massaged her left shoulder tenderly as they quickly assessed the situation.
"He's down, we won't be riding him again," said Mai as she picked up what was left of the water and food pack, the ostridge horse's dying gasps loud in the still air.
"We can't stop," Toph replied flatly, taking the bag with their things from the saddle. "Let's move."
Trying to take the least resistive path without leaving an obvious trail was difficult but soon they reached an expanse of ground that offered them no cover for a very long ways.
"They'll see us," said Mai as they hesitated on the edge, obviously favoring one leg over the other. "We can't make it."
"We can't go around it'll take too long and if I bend us under they'll find us even faster, we'll take our chances." Her staunch companion took her wrist, pulling her along as quickly as she could without putting too much stress on the knife-throwing girl's bad knee. It was painful, and grueling, but cover eventually came into sight and they felt like they might actually make it when a horn sounded behind them and a dozen mounted Dai Lee soldiers came into view on the horizon.
Toph dropped the bag as she shoved the whistle in Mai's hands. "Blow it!" she ordered as she readied herself for the fight. "And don't stop!"
Mai complied, though not before adding dryly, "I hope they're good for it."
Toph smiled as she brought up her hands with the approach of the first few. "They are."
Dust flew through the air, the Fire Nation noblewoman blinded and often coughing up the grime that coated her throat as she took what shots were presented to her and remained behind the young girl the rest of the time. She was nearly useless with her mobility shot due to her knee, but Toph didn't seem to mind as pillars rose and fell with the ease of breathing. The Dai Lee came close once or twice, but eventually the dozen were lying before them broken and beaten.
"We can't rest," sighed Toph as they paused for a moment as the dust cleared. "The others will have noticed that. They'll come."
Mai just shook her head, pointing to their left though the blind girl could not see it. "No, they're here."
"Run or fight?" asked Toph as the group bore down on them.
"I'd rather they take me from the front than the back," Mai admitted with a slow smile, surprised at how easy it was to align herself with the feisty earth bender against overwhelming odds. Well, why not? "Though it's a bother to do so."
"Fight it is. Your knives?"
Mai checked her holders with a grimace. "Almost gone."
"Here." The earth bender pulled several thin spikes the length of her forearm from the ground. "Can you throw these?"
"I can try."
The initial charge was easily beaten back, some falling to a painful demise as Toph opened chasms beneath their feet and they were unable to save themselves in time. Those following just bridged the gap with columns of stone, wary against another attack of a similar nature. Mai had to admit the bender's powers were incredible, often times sensing through her feet faster than a normal human could visually perceive the vibrations of those attempting to surrounding them and thwarting them as best she could. And the stone spikes, though oddly balanced, were not too difficult to fling at vulnerable points the Dai Lee presented.
"You should run," the blind girl suddenly said as their opponents retreated for a moment. "There's more of them coming, and I'm not sure how long I can hold them off."
"She'll capture you," Mai replied flatly.
"Yeah, but that's the perk of being a friend of the Avatar, she won't kill me." Toph smirked knowingly. "I'm too useful as live bait. You, however, don't have that kind of luxury. Get out of here, I'll be alright."
For probably the first time in her life, Mai found her self reluctant to take the easiest road offered. From the time she had been a small child she had been too bored with the world presented to her to do more than take whatever required the least amount of effort from her to achieve an acceptable gain. That meant putting forth extra effort on things she found at least vaguely amusing, like practicing with her knives so Azula would find her a suitable companion, but in the end always meant the things she disliked she could almost entirely expel from her existence.
Guilt had never been something Mai had enjoyed. That and a desire to help because of respect rather than fear or necessity had never been high on her list either. She paused, stuck between abandoning her companion with hope of making it out herself alive and sticking with the stubborn young girl that had proven a worthy adversary and perhaps even ally.
"What are you waiting for?!" yelled Toph over the sound of her raising another wall to hold off the barrage of boulders being thrown at them.
"You said they're good for it," replied Mai as she resumed her stance, putting the whistle to her lips with a faint upward curling of the lips. "Better hope their right, little girl."
The earth bender seemed to consider arguing with her for a moment, then smiled. "Fine, have it your way. If you die you'd better not haunt me, though."
"I have no interest in coming back from the gave," her companion said dryly as their shield was lowered and return fire coming in the form of huge shockwaves Toph called up with a stomp off her right foot and twist of her wrists. "That's requires far too much effort." Despite the large amounts of damage the bender managed to inflict on their ranks, the main bulk was still steadily advancing and Mai got the feeling it wouldn't last long once the fight became close-range.
She was right. The original attempts to keep the earth-bending Dai Lee from surrounding them were thwarted with their simple overwhelming numbers and eventually there came a blow Toph didn't have a hope of stopping in time. She felt something impact with her ribs and hit the ground hard as the wind suddenly kicked up in a fierce storm and the sound of something bellowing loudly emanated from overhead. Someone shielded her from the worst of it, coming to her senses after a moment of shock to pull up a stone tent over both of them and crouching there together until the worst of it seemed to end.
Pulling out of their cover, Toph listened carefully until she heard a familiar voice calling her name.
"Here!" she yelled back, putting the stone tent down and she quickly assessed the situation. It looked like all the soldiers had been knocked out, and while there would indubitably be more coming if that was Appa that was thumping his way towards her they could easily escape. "Hey, you alright, Mai?"
"I've been better," she replied with a hint of stress in her voice, Toph giving her a hand up that she grudgingly accepted as her knee threatened to give out from under her. "So, you were right after all."
"I always am," replied Toph as she turned in the direction of where the others were running towards them, letting Katara hug her warmly though she was careful to continue to help support the ex-Fire Nation warrior. "Thanks for the help, guys."
"Whoa, the almighty Toph actually admitting she couldn't save the world on her own," gibed Sokka from his seat on Appa's back.
"Not that she didn't try," Mai added under her breath, Katara stifling a giggle as she surveyed the ragged pair. Both were in desperate need of a bath and probably new clothes as the ones they were had been torn and stained beyond reasonable repair.
"Who's your friend, Toph?" she asked, Aang alighting beside them from having been scouting in the air.
"Mai?!" yelped Zuko, suddenly on his guard as he appeared among the rest. "What are you doing here?! Where's my sister?!"
"You're welcome for saving your life before," she replied flatly, recognition slowly dawning as the others got a good look at her. "Your sister doesn't take kindly to traitors, my apologies if I felt saving your life was adequate, and didn't replace it with my own."
"We were cellmates," Toph added with a grin. "Don't worry guys, she's good."
"Little Mai and my dear friend, it is a pleasure to see you both again," Iroh said from Appa's back, waving merrily though Zuko had not yet relaxed his stance.
"You didn't have to save me," he sneered, lips curling in disgust as he eyed her dirty clothes and smudged face. "I don't need some toady of my sister's to watch my every move-"
"I do not belong to you sister," she cut in forcefully, eyes defiant as they met his glare. It was the first time he could remember her doing so, ever, and it surprised him enough to be quiet for the moment. "At least not anymore. You only need to put up with my presence to the next town, that's all the earth bender promised me."
"I'd saw I owe her that much for helping me out of the castle without raising a fuss," Toph put in quickly. Aside to Mai, she added, "Although if you want my vote, he totally wasn't worth it. You should've left him to die, ungrateful bastard he's being."
"Less fighting, more getting on the flying bison so we can get out of here!" called Sokka, pointing in the distance where a large dust cloud was advancing on them. "We can sort out who's on what side later."
"She comes with us," said Toph in a way that left no room for argument, bending them both onto the bison's back and Mai trying to ignore the way her heart twisted every time Zuko glared at her from across the small space. He took his place beside his uncle in the front, and with Katara busying herself healing Toph and Mai of their various injuries Sokka sat somewhere in the middle as Aang steered up front.
"Hey, Toph, can I have my whistle back?" the avatar called over his shoulder as they flew out of range, not sure where to go next but knowing staying put wasn't an option. "Though I'm glad it helped us find you."
Toph got it from Mai, letting Katara pass it to him carefully. "Yeah, I took it just to mess with you a bit, didn't know it'd come in handy."
"Well, I'm glad."
For the moment, that was all that mattered.
Zuko paced alongside the creek as he listened to the soft laughter float from the bright fire. Iroh was entertaining their 'traveling companions' with stories of his youth when he was even more foolish than he is now, and the young folks were avidly listening to the tales the ex-prince had practically memorized. About the fifth time through they started to lose their charm. He still wasn't sure he believed the tale the earth bender and Mai had woven together for them earlier that evening, claiming that Toph had learned to bend metal and was able to get them out of the cell as a result. If Sokka hadn't testified to it being the truth and Aang backing him up, he would have called her a liar without hesitation. The fact that Mai was able to pilfer the Earth Kingdom uniform she currently wore plus a little food and their previous possessions he found a little bit of a stretch as well. That didn't match up with the quiet young girl he had once known…
"If my presence upsets you that much, I'll leave in the morning," said a voice right behind him as he paused to stare at the stream, barely resisting the urge to yelp as he whirled around to reveal a still disheveled Mai. She was able to walk at least, Katara having insisted upon healing the worst of her knee injury for helping Toph, but she had certainly seen better days with her hair all bound at the nape of her neck and the uniform ill-fitting her solid curves where the cloth was still whole. Thankfully, enough of it was whole to keep her decent, and Aang had given her the cape he'd used to sneak into Omashu to help keep her warm as the sun went down.
"This isn't a game," he snapped, forcing himself to concentrate on the conversation. "You can't just quit playing when you feel like it."
"I know that," she said with a hint of ire. "She will not search for me with the fervor that she does you, or the Avatar, but she will still look for me. That will not stop until one of us is dead."
"You seem very calm despite knowing that," he hissed, eyeing her with obvious distrust. "Or perhaps you do not fear death because it is not after you as it is the rest of us."
"You still think I am here to spy on you," she sighed, crossing her arms loosely with a scowl.
"What else am I to think?" he replied harshly. "If you wanted to break away from my sister, you could've done so years ago. No one forced you to be her companion…"
"No, just the subtle threats of what might become of my youngest brother if I thought my life was my own, or the slander that could ruin my parents' position among the other nobles if I decided to disobey," she replied quietly, suddenly seeming a lot more subdued. "I don't think you understand what I've truly done…"
"You fool…!" Zuko turned away from her the tension obviously in his shoulders as he ground his teeth together. "How could you…your family-"
"I didn't stand there and think to myself 'who would I rather let die today?'!," Mai suddenly exploded with a fierceness that surprised the exiled prince. "I wasn't given the luxury of weighing my options, or even realizing that I had options. Azula was going to kill you, you didn't even see her until after the bolt was fired, and I…" Her voice suddenly dropped to a whisper, and she turned away slightly. "I did the only thing I could do."
She paused for a moment before she spoke. "Why…what?"
"Why…did you save me?"
The silence stretched longer this time before the young woman said anything. "If I knew myself, I would tell you." She shrugged slightly when she felt his eyes run over her questioningly, focusing her eyes on her broken, dirty nails instead. "I acted without thought; I just knew…I had to save you."
Golden orbs seem to bore into her relentlessly as he went on. "If you could go back, would you change it?"
"No." Her immediate response seemed to surprise them both.
This time the silence stretched for long that the fire-bender almost left, stopping only when the words, "Were you aware of the crush I had on you as a child?" reached his ears.
"No," he admitted slowly, turning to face her again. "Did Azula…?"
"Of course, why do you think she delighted in torturing you with me," she replied brusquely, giving him an odd look. "I think she knew on some level…the only reason I put up with her was to see you, in the gardens while we would play." Her cheeks flushed slightly though she refused to meet his gaze as her eyes dropped back to the ground, so she missed his uncomfortable blush in return. "You were so kind…you actually cared about the people of the Fire Nation. You were only a boy, but I believed you would do great things."
"I wasn't half as talented as my sister," he scoffed as he cleared his throat, trying to hide the tremor in it.
"You also weren't half as cruel," she rebuked him gently. "Talent isn't the only thing that makes a great leader. Your Uncle is proof of that."
"He is many things," the young man agreed with dry twist of his lips, glancing back towards the fire. "I'm not the little boy you knew in the garden." Zuko put a hand to his scar as he turned back towards her slowly.
"I know, you're now a man," she replied with an understanding that unsettled him slightly. "I'm not the girl I was either, I've become a woman. What's done is done Zuko, I can't think of what I can do to convince you, but I swear I will not harm you or your companions."
"Fine." Zuko nodded, a glimmer of acceptance in his golden eyes. "How long will you stay with us?"
Mai shrugged. "I don't know." She motioned back towards the camp. "A great deal of it depends upon them. They may not want me to travel with them…"
"The stubborn one seems to like you, if she says you stay they'll let you stay," he sighed flatly. "They're letting me stay and I've tried to hurt them more than once…"
"Strange how things change, hm?" She glanced at him with that odd look again and he shivered.
"You are a very clever girl, Miss Toph," Iroh said as he poured her more tea, Katara and Aang a little ways away working on healing the bolt Aang had taken through the chest. The scar was mainly what she was working on now, it seemed, and while he would always have a mark making it less stiff and sore would certainly help. "Who would have thought, using the particles of earth in metal to bend it?"
"I probably wouldn't have if I weren't blind," she admitted with a smirk. "Not being able to see certainly has its advantages."
Iroh just laughed. "Oh, I suppose so."
"Are you sure the knife girl's ok?" asked Sokka as he glance back to where the pair was barely visible by the stream. "I'd hate to wake up in the middle of the night and find you were wrong…"
"She's fine," Toph insisted with a frown. "She didn't kill me yet and she's had plenty of chances. If you annoy her, I can't make any promises of course, but I say she travels with us as long as she wants to."
"As long as she pulls her own weight…"
"I have known Mai for many years, she is quite the peculiar child," admitted Iroh with a small smile. "Always so very quiet …I believe if she were working with Azula she would have told us so already. She is not the smiling viper my niece is, regardless of how she may have acted in the past, and she will help where she can."
"She's very honest," added Toph with a smile. "And pretty good with those knives of hers. You should ask for a lesson, you need all the help you can get, Snoozles."
"So, I get to start learning fire-bending tomorrow?" asked Aang as he returned to the circle, Katara staying close though they were careful not to touch. One would blush if they thought the other was looking at them for too long, though both were sneaking peaks as often as they could. "It…should be interesting."
"It is good to see I have a willing pupil," Iroh said with a warm look. "You will need to work very hard; fire-bending is very dangerous."
Aang's face took on a hard look as he glanced at Katara. "I know, and I will."
"Excellent. Well, this old man needs his sleep, and it is probably best if we all do the same."
"Is anyone staying up on watch?" asked Zuko as he came back to the fire, eyeing Toph a bit distastefully as she moved a little ways from his uncle and set up her earth tent for the night. Aang, of course, would sleep on top of Appa and Katara and Sokka always slept by his legs.
"No need," Toph replied with a shrug. "Either Appa will hear them or I'll feel them long before they get to us. Get some sleep, princess, you'll have a long day tomorrow."
"Nephew, perhaps we should share our blankets with Miss Mai, seeing as she has none of her own," Iroh suggested suddenly, diverting Zuko's attention nicely. "That is, if you do not object Miss Mai."
"I'll sleep wherever," she replied, refusing to meet the blushing exiled prince's gaze as Iroh pulled the blankets from their packs and set them near the fire. Soon a bed was made up and the three lay down side by side, Mai in the middle while the Iroh slept by the fire and Zuko took the side away from it. Toph had set up her usual earth tent, slightly apart from the others, as Sokka lay in his sleeping bag beside Appa. Momo curled up with Aang, Katara next to them on Appa's broad tail. For now, as the fire was set to burn through the night, they were able to relax and rest. This time of peace would not last long, but for this small moment it was theirs.
Ok, so more than a hint of Kataang in it and it had some serious Maiko in it. I really can't decide which I like better, Toko or Maiko, guess we'll have to wait and see what happens next in the series, eh? Please review, I love to hear from you guys.