'The icy inferno'
Mai and Zuko
O.K. enough of this here and there, time to get these two together… not that I have much of a choice, I consider them hooking-up a critical factor in them maintaining a bond at all! As they say, not all love interests make the best of friends…
Zuko moved silently along the rooftops. The evening had not yet fully turned to night and his dark silhouette was illuminated by the many fires that had sprung up in the regional capital due to the bombardment. Despite the occasionally burning building lighting the night, there was little chance that he would be noticed by the earth kingdom soldiers and militia running around bellow. To the east, the fire nation division was massing for an attack and with many earth kingdom soldiers captured after the failed ambush, every man was needed to try and hold off the fire nation reservists.
Sliding down a section of piping, Zuko jumped down into an alcove before putting his back to the wall. His focused eyes scanned the surroundings intently. He couldn't help but feel that he had forgotten something. He was wearing a similar outfit to that which he had worn when masquerading as the blue spirit, simply now minus the mask. Though there was no reason to hide his face anymore, he couldn't help but feel a little… exposed.
He saw another dark figure moving to his left, Mai seemingly materialised from the shadow, more like a ghost then a solid person. Zuko was very happy to know that this mysterious and dangerous girl was on his side. Behind Mai were two Dai Li agents, apparently slightly out of breath from following the surprisingly athletic young aristocrat.
'We just neutralised the rearguard patrol' said Mai calmly.
Zuko nodded, though he had come up with the plan to feign an attack and infiltrate the capital, Mai had been playing an active part from the planning phase and had proven more then capable numerous times already.
'The attack will begin soon, it wont be too long before they realise it's a trick if all goes to plan.'
'Do you think that coward general will give up too soon?' asked Mai sceptically.
'I'm actually more worried that he'll follow through' replied Zuko, 'they have a good chance of wining, even with such an obvious frontal attack. But it will cost lives on both sides.'
The fire from a nearby building lit Zuko's features. Mai looked across to see the level of concentration in his expression. He really meant it about the men, his… and the earth kingdoms. Despite Mai's comments just after the ambush, she felt a sense of pride at the notion; anyway, this was more like the way she did things, and if it meant that she was saving lives, well then, all the better.
Zuko, for his part, was just glad the long and obvious build-up of segue weapons had allowed the evacuation of the civilian population. The bombardment had been intense to keep up appearances, though he had been sure to keep it concentrated on the outer fortifications, which had actually resulted in a few large breaches. The rebel's position really was hopeless; it was now only a matter of getting the rebel leaders to see this fact before needless lives were wasted.
'I captured one of the messenger runners' said Zuko suddenly, 'the leaders are coordinating from that large building over there.'
Mai looked over to where Zuko was pointing with his drawn sword. The large fort-like building was at the highest point of the town and offered a good view of the attack. It had high walls with a walkway around the top before the last story, it was not the type of building were you could burst in through the front door easily.
'This is not going to be easy' said Zuko darkly, it was obvious that he was not looking forward to the upcoming direct confrontation; he had been hoping that it wouldn't come to this.
'Hold it right there prince frontal assault,' said Mai calmly.
Zuko looked across to see Mai smiling, her calculating eyes studying the building.
'This is my area of expertise… you want to avoid hearting people don't you?'
Zuko looked doubtful.
'Even you can't silence numerous guards at once with your knives, at least not without killing them.'
Mai's smile remained steady; she looked back at the Dai Li agents, who simply nodded knowingly.
'You'll find our comrades here have infinite uses' said Mai shrewdly, suddenly she was very glad to have the capable earth benders with her on this mission. It was highly probable that Azula had originally sent them to keep tabs on her and Zuko, but in the end they still had to follow orders.
'We'll go straight over the wall, me and one of the agents first, followed by you and the other one. You go straight for the door and wait, I'll try and round up the lookouts but if I get spotted… well, you'll just have to show me some more of your suicidal heroism won't you' Mai said, her final comment coming across teasingly.
Zuko gave her a cheeky smile; it had not taken long for Mai to return to her old self after that encounter by the creek. She had obviously wanted to put it behind her as quickly as possible and Zuko had been only too glad to oblige. He was just happy to have her back to normal… or at least, as normal as Mai got. Zuko had also noticed, however, that she once again took a cold, unattached attitude towards the soldiers, something he had been rather disappointed about.
A large explosion from the east indicated that the battle was intensifying.
'Right, let's go' said Zuko confidently.
Mai nodded, and was running in front of Zuko in a flash. Zuko ran behind her, flanked by the two Dei Li agents who glided across the fluid rocks below them. The small group turned a corner, before heading straight down a large ally towards the shear wall ahead of them.
The Two Dei Li agents accelerated to move beside Mai as she sprinted towards the large three story wall. One of them abruptly stopped and seemingly jumped into the air before landing in an instantly formed crater. His momentum, he pushed forward, a column of earth shooting out from below Mai and catapulting her into the air. The second Dai Li agent threw his hands out behind him and catapulted himself into the air in a similar fashion. The two figures flew high, clearing the parapet walls perfectly.
Zuko slowed slightly as the second Dai Lei agent prepared for another burst. Finding himself flying high, Zuko barely cleared the top wall with a summersault before landing smartly in a crouched position.
Beside him he saw two guards pined to the wall and floor, Mai's daggers holding their limbs firmly in place, while a solid clump of earth around their mouths muzzled any alarm call. Zuko smiled devilishly.
Beside him, the second agent landed elegantly.
Around the corner they could hear some muffled exclamations as Mai dispatched more guardsman.
Zuko moved to one of the large windows. Withdrawing his sword, he angled the mirror-finished blade so as to see around the corner.
There were about eight men; Zuko could easily make out the leader, he was obviously a rich man, if the ostentatious armour he was wearing was anything to go by.
There was a muffled thud, but it was loud enough for everyone inside to her, the eight men turned.
'Guards! What is going on out there?' called one of the men angrily.
Back outside in the dark, Zuko spoke a quick command to the agent.
'Head around the other side and come in through the wall when you hear me go in.'
The Dei Li agent nodded and sped off immediately.
Zuko took a couple of steps back from the large heavy wooden door. He inhaled the cool evening air deeply, a chain of flame beginning to form along the sword he held in one hand.
There was a shout from the other side of the parapet, followed by an explosion of stone on stone.
Zuko weight was on his back foot, the small flame on his raised sword arm had now grown into a long whip of fire, while his other clenched hand was held to his chest, a bright light indicating a build up of energy.
Leaping forward, Zuko spun in mid air, swinging his clenched arm to backhand the ball of energy towards the door, in the same motion he spun on his axis and brought the whip of flame around in a wide slash immediately afterwards.
Inside the room, the eight earth benders barely had time to shield themselves from the explosion that vaporised the door, only a few had the sense to raise a protective shield of stone as a wall of flame suddenly entered the room an instant afterwards; the wall of light affectively blowing away any smoke or debris before it had even had a chance to form.
Zuko rushed in through the newly created opening.
Of the eight, only two veterans were in a state to react quickly. One punching a bolder towards the fire prince; which he vaporised with a flaming slash of his sword.
The young prince dove as the second earth bender sent a jagged series of spikes along the stone floor.
That earth bender was himself blindsided as a section of wall collected him on the way through. Turning around, the other veteran barely had time to deflect a stone fist before he was pinned by two daggers to his own stone shield.
Mai used one of the columns in the large window to effectively swing in through the opening; she landed flatly, spinning on the ground before releasing another volley of darts from her ankle which nailed one of the still stunned eight to the wall. Mai dove again as one of the other recovered earth benders sent a section of wall at her.
The shocked leader of the earth benders was back on his feet, himself very distressed to find that battle this close to home; this was not what he had had in mind. In front of him, the situation was deteriorating rapidly, Zuko had advanced and knocked out another earth bender by throwing him into the wall, the two Dei Li agents were exchanging blows with the others, and he had lost track of that damn girl.
Panicking, the large soft man threw his hands down flat, a massive, thick could of dust exploded from his feet and quickly filled the room.
Seen from the cold, dark calm from outside on the parapet, a section of wall crumbled. The soft and frightened leader emerged from the thick dust cloud, coughing loudly. The sounds of shouts and curses indicating that the last of his men had fallen in the room he left behind.
Terrified eyes searched frantically for an escape.
A shadow dropped down behind the fleeing man and he suddenly felt something very cold and very sharp against his throat.
'You're lucky I'm here' said a calm, deadpan female voice, 'otherwise you would have been known as the coward who abandoned his troops for the rest of your pathetic little life.'
The rebel leader froze; sweat pouring down his shaking petrified face.
Down at the city walls, the fire nation division had indeed continued in their attack. It was only a matter of moments before the battle would have descended into a costly melee. As it was, the fire nation troops were able to fall back a bit in good order as they saw the signal from Zuko; an impressive fireball illuminating the night sky from the base of the centre of town. The outnumbered rebels turned to see the fire nation flag atop their highest tower, their leader pinned helplessly against a large column of earth nearby, courtesy of the Dai Li agents.
The offer to surrender without harm was barely necessary from the nearby fire nation soldiers as the tired and outnumbered mixture of militia and earth kingdom soldiers threw their weapons down, raising their hands into the air.
The events of that fateful night had taken place almost two week ago now. They seemed like a whole world away to the fire prince as he once again found himself alone in the earth kings palace back in the city of Ba-Sing-Se.
Despite the satisfaction and relief which had naturally sprung up after the victory, something else had appeared in Zuko's mind just as quickly, something which he couldn't suppress, something which simply wouldn't allow him to enjoy the success, no matter how often he was praised and congratulated by his soldiers.
Were he should have seen his rejoicing, victorious men, he only saw the dejected misery of the defeated masses. Where he was meant to see the mighty flags of the conqueror, he only saw the destroyed houses and the deserted streets. Zuko had been surrounded by the ecstatic mob, all wanting to shake his hand or pat him on the back. Zuko had smiled, played along… and it had been one of the most isolated experiences of his life.
Looking up from his folded hands, Zuko observed his current surroundings. He had found the perfect place for such thoughts; Zuko sat alone in an elegant but simple stone half-gazebo in the centre of one of the ridiculously large parade grounds that surrounded the central palace of Ba-Sing-Se. There was nothing surrounding the columned structure for a little more then a kilometre in any direction, it was like being in the middle of a perfectly flat desert. The lights of the city wall and the far-off palace complex he was facing made for a rather picturesque setting against the night's dark backdrop. Importantly, it ensured that there was no way anyone could sneak up on him, something Zuko wished he could accomplish in his own head just as well.
The victory in the regional capital was supposed to cement is mindset in the role he had always sought, the role of the leader of his people. But instead of finally putting his lingering doubts to rest it had simply opened up a way for them to return in force. Zuko had once again thrown himself into his work in an effort to ignore the resurfaced feelings. He had toiled non-stop to ensure that the conquered earth kingdom people were treated fairly. The shocked and grateful faces of the returned civilians in addition to the released prisoners was only a small testament to his efforts; the fact that his own troops didn't resent the additional labour, and in a small way even ended up feeling somewhat satisfied with their efforts in assisting the recent former enemy, was the far greater achievement of his shear power of persuasion and inspiring leadership.
Despite all this, he still couldn't look any earth kingdom civilian in the eye, it was all simply not enough… he had moved heaven and earth, and he still didn't think it enough…
He was the best leader he could be, and it was simply, not, enough!
Looking up, Zuko could see a lone figure walking the long distance from the palace complex. It would still take a fare few minutes before he could even recognised the still small silhouette, but Zuko knew exactly who it was, Mai.
Mai walked calmly across the cobblestones, the rhythmic movement of her cloth making a very faint sound, but still audible in the large, empty, quiet expanses of the parade ground.
To her, the current geography also matched her current mindset, she was completely exposed, with a very long journey required to reach her desired destination, Zuko. He was a destination that was also isolated, and in no way accommodating in making her travels easier.
Mai sighed, if only Zuko knew how much trouble he was causing her, perhaps he would be a little more appreciative. Hands folded within her long robes, she walked on.
After the victory at the regional capital, Mai had seen even less of Zuko then just before the battle. Though he showed respect, kindness and gratitude towards her during the short periods of time that they were together; Mai couldn't help but pick up on an undercurrent of uncertainty and awkwardness, something which gave her the impression that their relationship had taken a step back, not forwards. Mai had performed her duties and kept a close eye on Zuko from a distance, after a few days she had concluded that some of his previous uncertainty had returned to him. This was not something he showed openly, but Mai's observant nature allowed her to pick up on the giveaway signs.
She had decided to give him some distance, simply providing what support she could without making him feel more crowded, she had little idea of how to deal with his emotional turmoil, and didn't want to add to the mix.
This had meant that the young woman returned to the earth kingdom capital frustrated once more, something that wasn't helped by having to deal with an angry Azula upon her return.
Mai had sat quietly while an upset Azula vented her frustration. The fire nation princess had been brought fully up to speed thanks to her reports from the Dai Li. Azula displeasure at Zuko's success Mai simply ignored while internally smiling, it was her attack on Mai's inability to develop her relationship with Zuko which stung more, particularly because she was doubtful in this region herself.
With no idea on the matter herself, Azula criticized Mai's ability to seduce her man. Mai internally laughed at this, what experience did Azula think she had anyway? She was used to getting a man attention with the point of a blade, not through the battering of eyelids.
The final thinly veiled threat from Azula was designed to 'encourage' Mai, indicated that a different woman could possibly be called upon to do the 'job' of distracting her brother. Mai openly huffed at the notion, knowing that Zuko was in little mood for any woman, no matter what the type. In typical Mai fashion, she called Azula's bluff, before requesting leave in her cold uninterested voice, something a frustrated Azula had allowed.
And now she was walking towards Zuko, a new sense of determination building, there was a lot of pressure on her at the moment, internally and externally, it was time to act decisively.
The gazebo was a lot closer now and Mai thought she could just make out Zuko sitting leaning forward with his elbows on his legs, watching her calmly.
Though they had only been back for half a day Zuko had once again started to interrupt Azula's plans, it was obvious that he had not lost his determination to play his role... but somehow, it had lost its previous strength. Mai felt more then ever that Zuko portrayal of the perfect fire nation prince was a way to contain some type of uncertainty, a turmoil that had obviously resurfaced with some strength. Mai was pretty sure that if the turmoil won, she and the fire nation would lose him. This was evident enough from his sudden uncertainty towards her after the battle. Zuko obviously needed more bonds and reasons to stay, to play his role, and Mai knew exactly how she could engineer these bonds.
Zuko could make out Mai's features now; he couldn't help but smile at her steady blank expression. Even when being unemotional, the girl was still pretty, and it made him appreciate her smiles all the more, particularly as they seemed to be only for him. Zuko felt a sudden inner warmth, he had grown to appreciate Mai's quiet acceptance of him.
Even if she remained unpredictable and unreadable, he was able to pick up enough to believe that she accepted him for him. It had been a long time since he had felt this form anyone, even his uncle had continually wanted him to change…
The thought of his uncle brought a rush of guilt, something that had emerged again after the victory which was meant to have set his mind free. Poisoned thoughts quickly flushed Zuko's mind. Suddenly the doubt that Mai really accepted him for him returned. Perhaps she really was just faking-it to get close to him so as to be able to spy for Azule. No, he was being ridiculous, again. Still though, even if he did push this thought away he once more felt undeserving of acceptance. Zuko frowned… it was impossible to be around Mai at the moment without this emotional handicap showing itself. Though a part of him wanted to get closer to her, his mind would not leave him alone long enough to think anything coherent… the best he could do was be awkward and polite, something which resulted in frustration, usually leading to an abrupt ending.
While Zuko's mind had been racing, Mai had reached the gazebo.
Without a word, Mai calmly walked to Zuko's side and sat down close next to him, staring back at the palace she had just come from.
Zuko frowned, rubbing his hands together slowly while keeping has eyes firmly fixed to the horizon…
'Nice view' said Mai coldly, 'almost worth the ridiculous long walk it took to get here.'
Her tone had a hint of playful sarcasm. Zuko smiled, remembering back to the brief time when he had been at ease around Mai.
'Ya' he said.
The smile quickly faded however as guilt again sprung up, it was relentless and tiring… Suddenly he felt annoyed that Mai had disturbed his piece, if she wasn't here he would be able to calm down again, and it was a heck of a long walk back to the palace.
Mai could feel his agitation, becoming slightly annoyed, and if she admitted it, hurt by his physical reaction to her presence.
Zuko suddenly turned to face Mai, one of his random emotions winning out momentarily.
'What do you want Mai?' he asked impatiently, expecting some kind of message from his sister, he knew that she had been summoned to see her soon after they arrived back.
Mai was sitting upright and physically very close to Zuko. He looked straight into her eyes. Zuko could have sworn that he saw a moment of hurt shock pass through her normally piercing stare, something which froze his thoughts and body to the spot. A few seconds passed between them.
'Do you really not know?' she asked softly, not breaking eye contact. The comment came across as more of a statement of her exasperation with the situation, then disappointment or anger.
Zuko's mind was blank, his eyes unable to break away from the enigma that was Mai, and what she really meant to him.
In Mai's mind she had already made the decision to act. Though she would never admit it, she was mildly disappointed. Deep down, almost every girl secretly didn't mind the idea of being swept off her feet. But it was not to be, and Mai was not the type of girl to take it lying down.
Mai leaned forward, her movements starting slowly, then gradually accelerating to fluidly and quickly press herself against the stunned Zuko. One hand encircled his waste and the other moved behind his head before she tilted her own head to bring her mouth to his.
Zuko felt the soft warmth of her lips touch his own. She was applying only a mild amount of pressure, holding his head steady with her hand. Zuko jerked a bit as a reflex. Mai's grip tightened automatically to compensate without forcing her to apply any more pressure to the kiss. Zuko couldn't help but note the strength in the girl's increased hold, she was not going to be denied.
Mai's grip lightened immediately after Zuko's impulse, her hands sliding through his hair and along his skin. There was no excessive force; she was simply perfectly guiding the kiss from her side. Zuko's open eyes watched as her head began to straiten. Mai's eyes opened slowly, carrying with them a wealth of emotions well beyond Zuko's limited imagination. She removed her lips from his momentarily, before giving him a brief feather-light kiss while maintaining eye contact. Without breaking her relaxed but intense gaze, their noses briefly touched has she leaned her head the other way, her eyes slowly closing again as she initiated another, longer, sensual soft kiss.
Mai had no idea what she was doing, her last guided impulse had been to enjoy this kiss as much as possible, knowing full well that there was a chance it would be her only one with Zuko. That it had instantly been so intense was not her intention. Upon touching Zuko, it was as if a floodgate had opened in her mind, she was completely immersed, completely absorbed in her body's motions and reactions. This was one of the few times her logical mind gave way, and there was no way in hell her pent up emotions were not going to use this brief freedom to go all out.
Zuko shocked mind, though registering the wonderful sensations flowing through him, had barely enough time to lose himself in the moment. His eyes began to close and he was just starting to react to her initiative when she suddenly broke off contact.
Momentarily startled, Zuko had to blink a few times before he realised that Mai had pulled back a bit. Her hands had moved to his shoulder and hip, ensuring that she had control over the short distance she was maintaining.
There was a moments silence as both teens reorganised their thoughts a bit.
'I like you Zuko… a lot' said Mai calmly, her voice quieter then normal.
'I know you're working through some internal troubles' Mai continued, 'but by the look of it, the only one who can really help you there… is you.'
Zuko reacted only slightly to the comment; there was no real use in denying it. Zuko blinked a few times and then looked away automatically, as if slightly ashamed somehow.
Mai's hand moved to his cheek, gently guiding his head back around until he was looking her in the eyes again.
'I want to be by your side,' Mai said confidently, but somehow still gently.
'I want to help you to become the prince that you want to be.'
Zuko looked deep into her eyes, she really was being completely honest… or at least, she thought that she was being completely honest. The problem was that Zuko didn't know what type of a fire prince he really wanted to be.
'Mai I…' he started to reply.
'No' interrupted Mai suddenly, her hand still on his cheek. In the back of her mind she simply knew that dialogue was her enemy, she needed a way to streamline his muddled mind before it twisted in on itself again.
'I don't want you to tell me your answer' she continued, her fingers tracing the outline of his jaw.
'I want you to show me.'
Mai tipped her head forward slightly, her expression indicating well enough that this was Zuko's only way to answer.
Zuko frowned, his unfocused eyes dropping to look at a Mai's lap. His muddled mind polarised into two camps, he could either win Mai, or lose her. His first thought was that she would only get in the way, of what exactly, he couldn't say. But even the thought of more complexity in his life was something he expressly wanted to avoid… he knew that much.
Mai moved her hands to collect his loose hands in hers, bring them together and resting them on their touching laps.
Zuko's last thought was defeated by a brief recollection of his and Mai's relationship so far; she never pried, never pushed, she was simply there, waiting patiently, somehow comforting without saying anything, like now.
Zuko's mind switched to the other side, what if he lost her? The physical sensation of a sinking stomach told him instantly how much he had become accustomed to her silent support. She accepted him as he was, and was willing to help him. Though he had never directly recognised this fact, the thought of losing it suddenly made him realise how valuable it was.
Zuko's snap decision came out of nowhere, she wanted him, and he now knew that he wanted her, there was simply nothing wrong with that.
Zuko looked back up. Mai had turned her head away while waiting for his answer, but turned back to look him in the eyes when she noticed his head raise.
There was a sense of determination in his eyes and Mai couldn't tell what he had decided. Motionless, she simply waited for his next action.
Zuko slowly raised one of his arms, gently stroking the side of Mai's face with the back of his hand. Her cool, soft skin felt better then he could ever have imagined.
The fire prince raised his other hand to cup her face. Slowly, he leant forward, closing his eyes and guiding himself in for a tender kiss of his own. His thoughts dissolved as he was lost in the moment, simply enjoying every sensation as Mai leaned into him once more, enveloping him in her arms.
Moments of silent, blissful gentleness and affection followed one after the other. Both youngsters lost track of time as their senses were given full reign of their bodies. It was quite simply heaven for the two differently troubled minds, both being normally constrained by rigid thought structures and caged emotions.
Many minutes later, Mai found herself lying against Zuko's chest looking up at the stars; the two were curled up in a corner of the gazebo. Zuko gently hugged her from behind as he leaned back onto a column, his hands enjoying the soft texture of her clothes. They were both looking up at the stars, not having said a word since that first kiss, both relaxed… and both smiling…
And there you go. In regards to Mai's sudden passion, there is a good saying about people, 'still waters run deep' It fits her somehow I think. Well, I tried to explain a lot of what they were thinking and I hope I was able to expand on their characters while still leaving them 'in character' for their actions in season 3… Given their current state, I see no long term future, but there is a lot of room for development, particularly Mai's character, and I think Zuko's just the man to return the favour of the support she showed him. But that story will have to wait until the end of the series… go the continuation!
Finally… I've managed to regularly update and hopefully kept a reasonable high quality, it's been a lot of work and I've appreciated the reviews so far… As for the rest of you, if you read this and have any thoughts on the matter, please write them in a review, even just a few words. Considering the effort I have put in I think I can request that (particularly if you have enjoyed the story!) So leave a review or +fav, it helps get a bigger audience… and will motivate me to start another story! :-)