This takes place some time after "Return to Omashu" and before "The Blind Bandit." And yes, hopefully this does mean I'm back.
Two For Flinching
The whistle of the dart through space was really too soft for Aang to have heard- not before it was too late, anyway. Its movement through the air let him know it was coming, and with his airbending senses he knew exactly when to bring his staff around to knock it away.
He grimaced and hobbled forward even faster, though it didn't make much difference. The previous darts had been louder; he had actually heard them. This was a different kind of projectile, which meant she was taking her time now, going through her inventory. It was very depressing and made him rather anxious.
They had been ambushed by that trio of Fire Nation girls from Omashu; the three had surprised him and his companions as they had been resting on the ledge of a particularly large, flat mountain. The one with the blue firebending had thrown out a wall of azure flames that nearly engulfed them; fortunately, a river running down the mountainside had allowed Katara to counter it. He and Sokka had turned to face her companions, the acrobat and the knife-throwing girl. The former had vaulted straight at the Water Tribe boy, her round face beaming with a smile that had actually seemed friendly. Sokka had ducked and rolled, only to realize too late that she had not been aiming for him at all, but was instead flying over him towards Aang. The airbender had been able to blow her over his head with a quick gust of wind, aided by his own very nimble contortions- but not without her toe lashing out and catching him between his shoulder blades, streaking numbness through his upper muscles.
Appa had chosen that point in the fight to slam his tail into the cliff face, sending a storm of boulders shooting toward all of them and a strong pulse of air knocking them all perilously close to the edge.
Or over the edge, in Aang's case.
He had landed at the bottom without major damage. That was not to say he was unscathed. In fact, he had twisted his ankle. Combined with his upper back, he was forced to hobble forward leaning on his staff, just like the old man he sometimes disguised himself as. That had been painful and humiliating enough. Then the knife-throwing girl had appeared on a rock spire, hurling a wave of kurai straight at him.
How did she survive the fall better than me? Aang wondered. He glanced over his shoulder again. Now the girl was walking, up on a dirt ledge to his far left. Stepping back with one leg, Aang circled around and swung a gust of air at her with his staff, but she easily dodged it by leaping down from the ledge.
Aang growled in frustration. The blow to his back hadn't completely killed his airbending, but it had left him unable to aim. At this rate, he would have to wait for her to come closer-
Suddenly, Aang's injured leg fell into a hole, jerking him forward and almost causing him to fall. Catching himself with his staff, Aang looked back and yelped. His foot was wedged tightly in a crack in the earth, and pulling it only caused the pain of his twisted ankle to increase. He tried to push himself out with just his arms. No luck.
Stepping slowly across the dusty earth, Mai's eyes faintly narrowed as she saw the Avatar stumble; it was as much of a wince as she allowed herself. All told, this had ceased to be entertaining- and more than being boring, it was unsporting. He wasn't decent prey anymore, not in the slightest. She'd seen Ty Lee tag him on the cliff; then he'd hurt his ankle; now he couldn't even move. She almost wanted to leave him there and go back to the tank. If she did that, though, Azula would become irate, and the last thing Mai wanted to deal with was an irate Azula.
Sighing, she drew even closer, watching him struggle. Her eyebrows rose; there was one way she could have at least a little fun. Suppose she acted like she was going to kill him? It might cause some great screams from him, and the look on his face could be worth seeing. The corners of her mouth just barely turned up. Pulling out a long knife from her belt, she wound back and threw it hard at him, sending it whizzing past his head with less than an inch to spare.
She's going to kill me! She's going to kill me! She's going to kill me! the thought drove hard through Aang's mind. He hadn't even heard the knife this time; she must have thrown it from somewhere close behind him, though he couldn't say where because her footsteps were completely silent. There had to be a way out of this! His mind was racing. All of a sudden, he noticed the tension between his shoulder blades had lessened. The acrobat's blow must have started to wear off; if he could hold out until he was fully recovered, a blast of air would be enough to free his foot. Then he could fly away.
This time he heard the knife coming; twisting at the waist, he blocked it and flung a clumsy wall of air at the knife-throwing girl, who dove under the gust and rolled back to her feet. Instead of stopping, however, she dashed straight at him, a blade glinting silver in her hand. His breath caught in his throat.
Mai had grown sick of the Avatar shooting wind at her; it was messing up her hair and robes. To better enjoy his misplaced terror, she decided to come at him head on and make as if to slit his throat. When she took hold of him, she could simply knock him out, then drag him back to Azula- or wait for Azula to come get her, if she couldn't get his foot free. Coming quickly to him, she danced through swipes of his arms, spun on her heel, and faced him with inches to separate them-
Aang's mind raced- Have to stop her, just a few seconds more-
At the last possible second, before (he thought) steel met throat or (she knew) elbow met forehead, Aang pushed himself forward face-first, grabbed her by the shoulders, and leaned in the extra inch it took to press his lips against hers.
He kept his eyes open as he kissed her; so did she. In fact, Mai's yes, normally narrow, swelled to the size of tea saucers in unusually visible shock. Even odder was the color that blossomed on her cheeks; Azula and Ty Lee would have taken the sight of Mai blushing as a sign that the world was about to end.
Aang blushed as well, only partly in shock. He was also... ashamed. This felt wrong. He felt guilty somehow.
Fortunately, at that precise moment, the tension left his upper back entirely. Breaking the kiss, the airbender shoved his fists downward, sending a burst of wind toward the ground. The rock shattered; Mai jumped back, and Aang floated away just off the ground. Landing in a crouch, he grabbed his staff. Another air blast sent him into the sky, where he opened his glider and flew away.
"... and then Appa swung his tail and WHOOSH!" Sokka pantomimed the huge wave of wind. "He sent those Fire Nation chicks flying!"
Katara laughed. "But not before Momo took something from that firebending girl! Right, Momo?"
The lemur chittered and scampered into the firelight, where he held up his prize for Aang to see. It was a stylized flame captured in gold and covered with ruby red enamel. A ring extended back around it. The young Avatar recalled seeing it around the topknot of the firebender. Did it mean she was royalty of some kind? He remembered seeing such things on the heads of nobles back when he had visited the Fire Nation...
"Hey Aang," the waterbender continued, "we saw that girl with the throwing knives running down a path in the cliff side. Did she go after you?"
Aang sighed; Katara was surprised by his downcast gaze. "Oh... yeah, she did."
"Well, how'd you shake her?" Sokka asked, pulling out his boomerang. He removed the whetstone from his belt and began to sharpen the edge of the throwing weapon.
Now Aang looked even guiltier. "Oh, I... well, I just had to outrun her... and, you know, dodge her knives. Eventually that hit I took wore off, and I could fly away." The airbender fidgeted where he sat.
Katara knew he wasn't telling her something. "Aang... did something happen? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he said, a little too quickly.
Katara looked comfortingly at him. "You shouldn't be afraid if there's something you want to-"
"I said I'm fine." Aang drew his knees up to his mouth.
Katara finally looked away from him, into the fire. "Okay, then."
Aang felt awful. He felt like he had betrayed Katara. Even if she didn't know he liked her, the fact was that he did like her, and he was determined to tell her some day. But before he had been able to do that, he had kissed another girl.
Aang flinched, hoping Katara wouldn't see. It had been his first kiss, too. He had wasted his first kiss.
It bothered him long into the night, long after the fire had been doused and the three of them had curled up in their blankets on top of Appa's saddle. The airbender lay awake, looking up at the stars and wondering why he had done it, how wrong it really was, and whether it couldn't have been avoided somehow. Realizing he would need to work through his thoughts before he could have any kind of decent sleep, he kicked off his blanket and jumped to the ground. They were sleeping against a natural ridge that rose from the steppe around them, and he trudged to the top of the grassy mound. He began to walk along the hill, hands at his sides; the wind was light, and there was no moon, only the millions of dazzling stars above in the dark sky.
Hours passed, and he was still no more satisfied with his thoughts. He was quite a ways from the camp, though, and when he turned around he couldn't even make out Appa far away down the hill-line. Surprised at the distance he'd come, he began to immediately walk back-
The low, husky voice crawled up his spine from down and to the right. Turning around slowly, his hands rose to a ready position.
There she was, looking up at him from the bottom of the hill. She held her arms out to her sides, making her long burgundy sleeves flutter in the night air. "I'm not interested in fighting, okay? I'm not going to attack you unless Azula tells me to. And Azula's not here right now."
Her sincerity was hard to determine, because her voice did not rise and fall with her emotions as with most other people. But it was late, and Aang was in a forgiving mood. He lowered his hands. "What are you doing here?" he called down at her.
She began to climb the ridge. Her pale skin was almost gray in the dim light, and her black hair was very dark. She reached the top and stood just a few feet from him; he was a bit daunted by how tall she was.
"I could ask you what you're doing here too, but I really don't care," she said, her gaze falling somewhere down around his left foot. "I suppose you're camped somewhere nearby, just like us. I'm not interested in attacking you all at night, either, so I won't be telling Azula that." She then lifted her head and fixed her light yellow eyes on him. "I am glad to see you, though."
"You are?" Aang said, surprised.
"That's right. I didn't think we'd ever meet again when we weren't fighting with the others. I couldn't hope to find you on your own... but I really wanted to." She allowed a long knife to slide out of her right sleeve. Her eyebrows lowered. "Because that part about me not wanting to attack you wasn't completely true."
Aang drew back in surprise before circling his feet into an airbending stance. "You said-"
"And usually it would be true," she said, spinning the knife around in her palm. Her already narrow eyes narrowed even more. "But you stole something from me."
Aang's brain hit a bump. What on earth did she mean? Before tonight had only seen her three times in his entire life, and two of those times had taken place over a few days! Did she mean her brother? They had returned him safe and sound. Maybe she hadn't heard? "What do you mean?" he finally asked, keeping his body tensed.
"You..." the girl tensed up as well, a change from her previously relaxed posture. Her narrowed eyes grew narrower still, until they were barely more than slits. It was like she was fighting back a facial expression. "You..." she breathed out sharply through her mouth. "You stole my first kiss."
Aang's eyes bulged. "Your first kiss?" he repeated. But she was so much older than him. Surely she had... but who was he to say that? Maybe she was younger than she looked.
"I was saving it," she said. The knife was now hanging limply in her hand; her gaze drifted again to the ground. "But you took it."
He could finally hear an emotion in her voice: regret. She was genuinely upset at what had happened. It drew him out of his stance and made him hang his head, his shame suddenly fresh and vibrant. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "It was my first kiss too." He smiled bitterly. "I guess we both wasted it, huh?"
He looked back up at her, her stare now cool.
Aang took a step forward. "If there was any way to make it up to you-"
The girl resumed a tighter grip on her knife. "We're enemies. Neither of us owes the other anything."
"We don't have to be enemies," Aang said, his voice growing hopeful.
"Azula says you're my enemy," the girl said, though her tone was very carefully neutral. "Azula gets what she wants from me."
Aang thought he detected... reluctance. She already wasn't going to tell 'Azula' about meeting him tonight. "What do you want?"
The dark-haired girl looked him in the eyes for a moment. Her gaze hardened. "I want my first kiss back."
There was that shame inside him again. Aang broke her stare. "I can't give that back. I'm sorry."
They continued to regard each other. The girl drew her hand back into her sleeve, causing him to tense, but when she pulled it back out the knife was gone. She looked at him differently now, as though she were examining him. She took a step forward. "Are you really?" she asked him gently.
"Yes... really, I am," he said. He looked away. "See... I was saving my first kiss too... for someone special. When you attacked me, I did the first thing I could think of to stop you... I guess I didn't think of what it would mean."
She took another step forward. Then another. Then another. Then another. She was very close now. "Give me another kiss," she said.
Aang was shocked. "What?"
The girl took another step closer. "You want to make it up to me?" she asked. She looked down into his large gray eyes. "Give me another kiss... and make it one I'll remember."
Aang's heart was pounding in his chest. "But... why do you want to kiss me?" If she'd been saving her first kiss, she must have had someone in mind to share it with.
She shrugged. "I've already wasted my first one, right? There's nothing special about the second kiss... unless you make it special." She took another step forward, now so close that they could hold hands. "So as long as we're here, you can make my second kiss more memorable than my first."
Aang met her pale eyes again. This was crazy. Was she serious? She couldn't possibly ask him to kiss her again, when that was what had started this mess. And yet... he had taken away this girl's first kiss. If she asked another one of him, what right did he have to say no? Even if Katara would tell him to? He owed her. And the second kiss really wasn't as important as the first...
The girl began to lean forward slowly, her lips puckering. It's only fair, he thought. He leaned his head up, his eyes drifting closed.
Their lips met gently and purposefully, unlike the stolen contact of the earlier day. He was surprised to find them smoothly lined; he had never noticed any lipstick, certainly none like the bright red stuff the blue firebender wore. He wondered how long this was supposed to last. She was leaning in more now, putting her hands softly on his shoulders. It felt good. He allowed himself to enjoy it, and pushed his tongue carefully inside her mouth. Her eyelids briefly rose, but slid shut a moment later. Her tongue wrapped around his as she repositioned her mouth, taking in more of his lips.
After a time impossible to measure, their lips parted. Aang realize he was smiling. When he looked up at the girl, he was surprised to see that she was smiling too. That made him happy, in a stomach-fluttering way.
"Thank you," she said gently.
"Uh, you're welcome," he said. "And... thanks. You too." His brow furrowed. "Did that make up for the first one?"
She raised one slender black eyebrow. "It was... good enough."
"Oh," he said flatly, shoulders slumping.
"It was actually pretty good. Better than I thought it would be."
"Oh!" Aang exclaimed, shoulders rising again as he grinned. "Well... you're welcome again. I was happy to help."
The girl turned and began to walk down the side of the ridge. Their business was done. Seeing no point in trying to say anything more, Aang started back toward where he knew Appa and the others were sleeping.
He turned. She was right behind him again, surprising him; she was so quiet!
"What's your name?" she asked, looking down at him.
"Oh, I'm Aang," said the airbender.
The knife-throwing girl's lips curled up. "I'm Mai," she said softly. "It was nice to meet you, Aang." She leaned in and kissed the top of his arrow.
Aang turned bright red. But he sighed as well, realizing what their parting meant. "I guess we'll be enemies the next time we meet."
"Hmm... I thought you said you didn't want to be my enemy," Mai said gently.
"I don't," Aang said. "But..."
Mai turned and began to walk away. "You know... I'm not always a good shot. I miss a lot, too." She looked over her shoulder. "Good night, Aang."
Aang nodded, happy again. "Good night, Mai. Sweet dreams."