Not Quite Paradise

Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.

Warnings: Spoilers up to Season Three, Canon pairings

AN: For Dracoqueen22. Her prompt was "The vacation or life-changing field trip from hell." Not sure how well I managed it.

This was supposed to be his vacation. His relaxing and carefree retreat. Time to unwind and sit back as the world passed him by. Enjoying the simple things in life.

No responsibilities. No duties. No petitioners. No servants. No courtiers. No cares.

Just him. His lovely girlfriend and soon to be possible fiancé. Maybe a few of his friends. Or even his uncle and mother. And two weeks of nothing but easy living, Ember Island's sandy beaches, and hopefully no horrible plays.

Only the palace was up in arms. There'd been yet another attempt on his life. The throne room looked like a battlefield. Half of his personal guard was in the infirmary. Oh, and Mai had been kidnapped.

Mai. Kidnapped.

These two words did not belong in the same sentence. Perhaps not even in the same paragraph. Mai was easily one of the scariest people Zuko knew, and he was related Azula for spirit's sake. Mai, who was cool under pressure and had even stood up to his sister with her head held high. Mai, who thwarted would-be assassins as easily as she breathed. Mai, who could fill a man full of knives in mere seconds. Without breaking a sweat and with an aim that could – and had – made Yu Yan Archers weep with envy.

Mai just didn't get kidnapped.

And Zuko wasn't the only one who had trouble believing it.

"Are you sure she was taken, Sparkles?" Toph asked for the fifth time in as many minutes; she stomped down and moved a boulder out of their way as they continued through the underbrush.

"Seriously," Sokka repeated with a swat at the giant bug that had taken a liking to him. "Who in their right mind would try to abduct her? That's practically suicide."

Zuko fought not to snarl and spit fire from sheer frustration. He couldn't decide if it was at the situation, the jungle, his companions, or himself. Maybe all of the above.

"Yes," he bit out. "She just disappeared in the middle of the night. Her room was trashed. There was blood on the floor. And the ransom note was sort of a dead give-away."

"I can see why you might think that then," Sokka admitted almost sheepishly. He neatly avoided the tree roots that threatened to trip him and swatted at his bug again. "But why are we here? You know, in the rain forest?"

"There's supposed to be some secret base hidden around here for the most recent batch of assassins," Zuko reminded them as he ducked under a branch. "And if you meant you guys specifically… Well, what's left of the guard is defending the palace while I'm gone. And-"

"-you'd rather have the two of us with you than them. Aw… How sweet," Toph concluded with a grin. She blindly delivered a punch of affection.

Zuko rubbed his arm and flushed red but didn't argue. Sokka just whistled innocently on his other side, while Toph smirked. But they were all silent as they went further into the unknown, following a barely-there path and a map Zuko had gotten from an informant. The same woman who'd told him about Mai's abductors and what else the group had planned. That list included everything from killing him and his friends to freeing Azula from the asylum and restarting the war.

Didn't think small, this lot.

Of course, those reasons paled in comparison to Zuko's true motivation for traipsing through the jungle with two of the deadliest and most skilled – if strange – people on the planet. He was really here on a rescue mission. Admittedly, it was one with insane odds stacked against them and little in their favor. Fighting against people who'd sooner see all of them dead than look at them.

Somehow, this all seemed vaguely familiar; Zuko couldn't figure out why.

Just him and Sokka and Toph. Fire, water, and earth. All they needed was Aang to round out the elements represented, but he and Katara were too busy dealing with that little problem near Omashu, and if by little, Zuko meant insurrection. So yeah, no Avatar backup on this one. Suki was off doing whatever it was she did, and Ty Lee wasn't with them either. She was back at the palace, helping keep order. Not in charge – that's what Masters Piandao and Jeong Jeong were for. Since really, Zuko wasn't that crazy.

Just the three of them. Approaching a hidden compound with an unknown number of guards, assassins, and benders inside. In a very sparsely populated area with no back-up to speak of and just with the supplies they'd brought. And no Aang or Katara to help them or Appa to swoop in for a quick escape.

They'd have Mai out by sunset. Guaranteed.

Nearly half a day of tromping through underbrush, escaping poisonous vines, and dodging the wildlife later, Zuko amended his estimation by a few hours. But that was only until Sokka grabbed his arm and jerked his head to the south and what was barely peeking through the thick trees.

Zuko nearly goggled at the sheer size of the compound in the distance; it was easily approaching the enormity of his palace. The outer wall was at least twenty feet tall with nasty-looking spikes lining the top, but Zuko could make out the roofs of several buildings held within. All of them were crafted from a forbidding sort of grey stone that seemed thick, heavy, and impossible to move for anyone but a master earthbender. But even that was second to the number of watch towers they could glimpse even from this far away or the number of patrols visible along the outer walls. Not to mention there was a strange amount of smoke billowing up from the dead center of the base.

Huh. Weird.

An hour later, they'd managed to successfully sneak over to what Zuko suspected was the entrance. It'd been slow going, hampered as they were by stealth, daylight, and plant life that just refused to move. Plus, it was miserable. Hot and humid to the point that his clothes stuck to him in very uncomfortable places and he felt like he'd just spent the last three days in a sauna. And now, they had to wait for nightfall to slip inside, somehow find Mai in the maze, make it back out without anyone sounding the alarm, and escape to their transport. All in the dark. Just the three of them plus Mai.

But apparently, the hawk had forgotten to deliver that message. Since they were just about to settle into the bushes for the long wait, only to find Mai calmly walking through the front gate. She seemed tired, a bit dirty, but otherwise fine; she even gave a small smile when she saw Zuko jerk to his feet and stare openmouthed.

Of course, the entire compound – now visible through the opening – was on fire behind her. Smoke poured out of every doorway and window, and no few guards ran around like crazed buzzard-wasps trying to put out the blaze. Even more of them were attempting to pry free their comrades from various surfaces. Apparently, someone had used lots of little projectiles to pin them in place.

Whoever could've done such a thing?

Oddly enough, Zuko wasn't the least bit surprised to find Mai waiting for them as they ran up to her. Sokka and Toph, however, weren't taking it quite as calmly. The former gave a low whistle as he inspected the damage to the buildings, and Toph was shaking her head in exasperation as she muttered under her breath.

"Mai," Zuko called out as he reached her and started looking her over for injuries. There were unsurprisingly few. "Are you alright?"

"I am now," she replied dryly, but he could tell that she was pleased to see him. "What are you doing here?"

"We're here to ah… rescue you?" Sokka said, but it was more of a question than anything.

He rubbed the back of his head as the main building behind them started to collapse inward. But that did little to put out the fire and only seemed to make it ten times worse.

Mai turned to blink at him. "I think I've got it."

"I'll say," Toph put in as she knelt and stuck her hand to the ground. "We didn't even get to save her. She did all the work herself. Why do our field trips always suck?" she grumbled mostly to herself.

They didn't know what to say that, so Zuko borrowed one of Aang's favorite tactics. He pretended he hadn't heard anything. The others seemed content to follow his lead, just standing there and looking at each other like they couldn't figure out what to do next. The only sounds were the shouts of the guards still trying to put out the fire, the groans of disintegrating architecture, and the odd noises of the jungle around them.

Mai sighed then. Her eyes were bright and focused, but she was tiredly leaning into Zuko's shoulder already. It was pretty obvious that she wanted to leave. Preferably now and not sometime in the future, too.

"Let's just go home," she suggested.

It sounded like a good idea. Probably the most logical plan and one that a world leader and Fire Lord should support. But she'd just been kidnapped, and the three of them – he, Sokka, and Toph – had just tromped through a freaking jungle. They were all worn out and hot and damn near exhausted. Covered by scratches and bug bites and spirits only knew what else.

Besides, the palace could survive a few more days without them, Ember Island was closer, and Mai did need to recover from her ordeal. And he was still technically on vacation.

"Actually," Zuko began with a wicked gleam in his golden eyes, looking every bit his father's son and his sister's brother. "I have a better idea."

Ever Hopeful,