A/N: At this point, just about everyone knows that Mai is eventually going to have to make a choice between Zuko and the Fire Nation. Personally I believe that Mai will choose Zuko. But if by some horrible plot twist she actually ended up choosing the Fire Nation…well, I think she would really regret it. Anyway, that's basically where this idea came from.

I don't own Avatar. But I did in my dream last night, if that counts for anything…

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Duty must come before love.

That was the one moral that Mai had ever lived by. Her parents had ingrained the idea into her brain since birth, and she had eventually learned to accept it, to believe it, to follow it. She had repeated that phrase in her mind an infinite number of times: when she had had to watch her father sail off to Omashu, leaving her and her mother behind; when Zuko had been banished, sent away for years; when she had been forced to move to Omashu as well, far away from her friends.

And she was repeating that very phrase in her head as she sat in the front of the execution arena, knowing full well what was to happen.

The huge stadium was filled to the max, hundreds of Fire Nation politicians and citizens all crammed onto the bleachers of the staged seating that wrapped around the middle floor. There was a small stone podium in the center of the arena, where a wooden pole shaped like an upside-down 'L' was positioned. But what really mattered was the noose constructed of thick rope that hung from the end of the pole, patiently awaiting its victim. Mai shivered at the sight of it, turning her head away.

She had thought this wouldn't be a problem. She had thought she had been able to push her emotions back completely, made herself immune to any painful feelings. And yet, when the crowd roared with anticipation as the condemned man was led out into the arena by a small group of guards, his wrists bound tightly in thick metal chains, she felt an unfamiliar flood of pain, grief, sadness, and guilt wash over her, causing tears to begin welling up in her eyes.

Zuko was striding toward the noose hanging at the center of the floor, his head held high, his back straight despite the heavy chains that burdened him. Mai couldn't help but smile slightly in respect. If he had to die, he was going to do it proudly.

Mai's smile disappeared when Zuko turned his head, looking past the several guards that were leading him to his death, his dark gaze boring into her like a drill. His expression was hard, grim, a hint of anger touching his tightened face. But it was his eyes that she found truly frightening. Hate, grief, pain, and worst of all a feeling of betrayal all swam around in the anguished golden orbs as he glared at her, looking disgusted. Mai shrank back in her chair, twisting her head away guiltily. She and Zuko both knew that she had done this to him. She had captured him herself, turned him in to Azula even though she had known he would be sentenced to death. But she had only been following the Fire Lord's orders! She hadn't done anything wrong, had she? Duty has to come before love, she reminded herself, trying to swallow down the shame that had formed a lump in her throat. Right?

But as Mai watched Zuko step onto the stone podium and then onto a small wooden stool, the noose getting positioned around his neck by two of the heavily armed guards, she realized that she really wasn't sure anymore. As the reality of the situation finally began to sink in, the fact that Zuko was really about to be lost forever, old memories began to resurface in her mind, reminding her of days long ago.

Zuko when he was younger, smiling and laughing with her.

"Zuko, the banished prince of the Fire Nation," the executioner began, his loud, booming voice resounding in the now silent arena. Mai saw Zuko's lips twitch slightly at the word "banished".

Zuko handing her a flower from the garden, his sweet face bright red with embarrassment.

"…has been condemned to death by Fire Lord Ozai for a series of treacheries against the Fire Nation," the man continued, causing Mai's muscles to tighten.

Zuko wrapping his arms around her as she cried.

"…for failing his father countless times by not capturing the Avatar, for…" the man pressed on, his words beginning to mesh together in Mai's ears. She noted absently that the executioner must be listing off all of Zuko's "misdeeds".

The pain she had felt for him at his Agni Kai, and how sad she had been when he had left.

"…he is to be hung by the neck until dead." The man gave a sick, twisted smile. Mai wanted to vomit.

Meeting Zuko in the woods a few weeks ago, how he had greeted her warmly, oblivious to the knives she was about to throw.

Mai glanced up at Zuko, who was standing unflinchingly on the stool, listening with a hardened expression to his own death sentence.

How betrayed he had looked when she had pinned him to a tree, his honey-colored eyes filled with a deep hurt and disappointment in her.

A single tear ran down Mai's cheek. What had she done? How could she have done this to the one person she cared about the most? Her eyes narrowed with barely suppressed tears, her gaze both determined and desperate as she jumped to her feet, her fingers gripping the cool steel of one of her knives tightly. She had to stop this. She couldn't lose him…

But it was too late. Mai cried out as the stool Zuko had been standing on was kicked out from under him, leaving him hanging by the neck. Tears rolling freely down her cheeks, she watched as Zuko's face paled from lack of oxygen, the life draining out of his body at a horrifyingly fast rate. She fell to her knees, hopeless, knowing there was nothing she could do. Meanwhile the crowded cheered, more than happy to see Zuko die, either not seeing or not caring about the girl that was kneeling on the floor, tears cascading down her pale face like a waterfall.

Minutes passed. The crowd began to clear out, losing interest in the already dead prince. Before long, the entire place was empty and silent, save for Mai, whose grief-filled sobs echoed in the vacant arena.

Slowly she got to her feet, wiping tears from her face only to have them be immediately replaced with fresh ones. She carefully hoisted herself over the low railing that separated the bleachers from the smooth floor of the execution area. Her footsteps resounded on the stone floor, breaking into the silence as she hesitantly approached Zuko, who had been carelessly left hanging from the noose.

Pulling a stiletto from her sleeve, she stepped onto the small podium, unable to keep more tears from falling as she looked up at Zuko's limp body. Her face hard and pained, she sawed through the rope holding him up, biting her lips so hard that they bled. As soon as she had cut through the rope completely, he shot downward like a sac of flour, heavy and lifeless. Mai only barely caught him in time, lowering him gently to the stone floor and resting his head lightly in her lap. His face was chalk-white, making the deforming burn scar that marred the left side of his face all the more visible. Tenderly Mai brushed his shaggy, raven black hair off of his forehead, revealing his closed eyes as she examined him closely. He was completely still, motionless, cold.

Dead.

Mai let out a hard, anguished sob, more and more tears overflowing onto her face as she felt her throat close up. She lifted his lifeless body up, embracing him tightly as grief and remorse took hold of her completely.

She had been wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. She had been stupid to think that duty should come before love. Love needed to come before duty.

But she had learned this too late. Zuko was gone. And neither love nor duty was going to bring him back.

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A/N: Please review!!