HUGE thanks to KASLiNN for Beta work. I rewatched Airbender this summer and this story just happened. It's been reposted on as well.
I'm sorry that you have to find out this way, but I'm leaving. I can't explain except to say that I'm joining the Avatar to try and bring down my father. I believe in second chances, but at this point that probably won't be enough. I do care about you but things have changed and I need to go before it's too late.
I hope you understand.
After the first read through she had thrown the note on the floor and stomped on it, nearly tearing a hole in the middle. Azula, still standing where she had been when she'd handed over the note, allowed a fraction of concern to appear in her carefully schooled expression.
"Hadn't he told you?" she asked quietly.
"Can it, Azula. You read the note, you know I had no idea what he was planning." Although the note had arrived neatly tied in it's original ribbon, Mai had no doubt it had already been read by Azula, Fire Lord Ozai, and at least five Dai Li agents and top generals. Slowly, she bent down to pick it up again, certain she'd missed something.
After the second read through she crumpled the thick paper and hurled the note across the room.
Azula's voice cut through room. "Uncle escaped as well. It seems their treacherous loyalty runs deeper than we thought."
"Oh right, I'm sure it was all a big surprise for you." Mai refused to face Azula.
"Actually it was, which in itself is surprising. Zuzu's always had a hot temper, but subtlety's not exactly his strong suit. He was always so eager to please my father, I'd assumed he would let something slip if he was not perfectly loyal."
Mai moved across the room to where the note had landed. There had to be something she'd missed. "That's why you said you didn't need Ty Lee and I during the eclipse?"
"Coward's way out." Briefly Azula's face contorted into a mask of rage before she regained control and once again gazed calmly at her friend. "I did need you during the eclipse. Without you, we couldn't have been certain of holding onto Ba Sing Se. There'd been talk of uprising. Just having you there was enough to keep the insufferable masses quiet."
After the third read through Mai didn't even waste time crumpling the note; she hurled it across the room followed by one of her smallest throwing knives, pinning them both to the opposite wall.
A perfectly manicured hand rested on her shoulder. "I'm sorry." Azula's voice was calm and smooth, but as Mai turned, she noticed genuine concern in the other girl's face. "I knew he'd cared about Uncle, and I knew he'd been confused since his banishment. I just thought he loved the fire nation enough to overcome all that."
Mai drooped under her friend's hand. "You're wrong. There's nothing here he loves."
Ty Lee arrived moments later to find the two girls sitting on the edge of the bed, Mai slumped with her head nearly touching her knees and Azula holding the other girl's shoulders as though afraid something would break if she let go.
"Mai! I just heard what happened I-" Ty Lee stopped suddenly, her eyes catching the crumpled paper still pinned to the wall. Slowly she approached the bed, and knelt by Mai. "I came to see if you were okay."
"That depends on your definition of okay," croaked Mai.
Azula sniffed and lifted her head from Mai's shoulder. "We'll make him pay," she stated simply, releasing her friend and standing. "There's only so many places a traitor can run before we will find him." She paused at the door and glanced back. "I expect you both to be in top form by the end of the week—we will be resuming our hunt for the Avatar."
Ty Lee's head swivelled from the empty doorway to Mai. "The Avatar? But I thought-"
"Zuko told his father he was going to join the Avatar. I guess Azula thinks that since hunting him is hunting Zuko, I'd still want to help."
Mai stood and started walking slowly out the door. "I'm going to the practice courts. I need to hurt something."
The note remained on Mai's wall for another two days.
After the fourth read through she'd hurled a ceramic dragon at it, smashing the figurine and driving the knife deeper into the wall. Then she'd wandered aimlessly between the palace and her parent's city home. Nothing held her interest. Ordering around the servants wasn't fun anymore; her mother, newly arrived from Omashu with Tom-tom in tow, was more boring than usual; Azula was either busy or frustrating; and even Ty Lee was just annoying. Finally she was back at the practise courts, challenging everyone foolish enough to wander in and reducing the targets and training dummies to splinters. Ty Lee found her there late at night and half dragged, half carried the exhausted girl back to her room.
After the fifth read through she'd hurled her comb at the note and didn't stop there. Makeup, shoes, framed pictures, anything she could grab hold of was flung across the room. Even her bed and armoire weren't safe. She flipped the mattress, smashed drawers, and kicked through her mirror. Finally she collapsed at the foot of what was her bed, and for the first time since she was a little girl, Mai cried.
When Ty Lee arrived, she took in the destruction in the room with a shrug and calmly sat next to her friend. "You really love him, don't you."
"Does it matter?"
"Of course it does. They're your feelings, Mai. Why shouldn't they matter?"
"They apparently don't matter to him." She wiped furiously at the tears streaming down her face. She was not crying for Zuko. He was not worth that!
"I think they did. I think he really cared about you."
"Hah. That jerk doesn't care about anyone except himself."
"Well, then they matter to me."
"To you? Why should it matter to you how I feel? Especially about him. He's nothing. He's a jerk. He's worse than a jerk. There are no words in the history of any language to describe just how much of a jerk he is."
"You're hurt, Mai, and that matters to me." Ty Lee rested her head on Mai's shoulder and reached out a hand to wipe some of the tears off her friend's face. "I want to be here for you. Whatever you need, just let me know."
"I think I need to be alone." Quietly, Mai buried her face in her knees and let the tears soak through the fabric. Eventually Ty Lee gave her friend a last squeeze and left. At some point throughout the day servants came by to straighten the room and entice Mai with some food. She picked at it, watching them replace the bedsheets and curtains, not even bothering to criticise when they put things in the wrong places. She didn't notice when they left the note stuck to the wall.
Until the next morning.
After the seventh read through she pulled the knife from the wall, rolled up the note and hid it in a drawer. She wouldn't think about it. She wouldn't think about him. He was nothing, worse than nothing. For two days she drifted through the house, ignoring and avoiding any conversation or engagement, despite Ty Lee's increasingly eager attempts.
On the third day a messenger hawk arrived from her uncle, addressed to her with both a red ribbon, signalling its importance, and a scorched wax seal, signalling its private nature. A quick glance was all she needed. She restocked her knives, grabbed Zuko's note and was gone before her mother could ask what it was about.
Mai avoided looking at the note all the way to the Boiling Rock. Instead she contemplated what she would do when she saw Zuko. Pulling out his fingernails might be fun, but probably wouldn't accomplish anything. She could pin him to a wall and force him to tell her why he'd done it, but that wouldn't have the same satisfaction and he might just lie. The gondola arrived before she'd come to a conclusion.
"Lady Mai." The guard was a weasel-y thing with a stupid little moustache and goatee. "Your uncle has asked me to escort you to his office." He reached for her arm.
"I'll be fine." She pulled her arm away from his grasp. "I've been here before. I know where it is."
"Yes but I-" This time as his hand brushed her sleeve she caught his wrist, flipped him onto his back and drove a knife through the hem of his glove and a crack in the metal floor.
"Try to leave him alive," came her uncle's voice from the stairs. "He has duties this afternoon and I'd hate to have to rework the schedule."
She turned and bowed, hands in her sleeves. "Uncle."
"Mai." He held out his arms, and she let him embrace her. "Thank you for not terrorizing the guards in front of the prisoners this time."
"I don't like people I don't know touching me," she replied, glaring at the man still lying terrified at her feet.
"You! Help him!" barked her uncle at two nearby guards. "Now Mai, as much as I'm glad to see you, I assume you're here for more personal reasons."
"Isn't that why you sent the messenger hawk?"
His eyes crinkled as he smirked. "We are so alike, you and I, Mai," he said, glancing down at her. "That is also why Zuko is still here, and not half way to the Fire Lord in chains." He glanced back at the stairs. "I have a room set aside for you. There will be a guard posted outside. Let them know if you plan on killing him. I'm sure we can blame it on one of the other prisoners. These things happen." With a final smirk he turned and began barking orders while Mai followed a guard to an interrogation room with a smirk of her own. Being the niece of the warden certainly had advantages.
Curiously, it wasn't until the guard threw him in that she wondered how Zuko had ended up in the prison anyway. It was his first words that triggered the thought.
"I didn't do anything wrong!"
"Come on Zuko, we all know that's a lie."
"Surprised to see me?" Zuko half rose from where he'd landed and sat in the interrogation chair. It was strangely appropriate.
"How did you know I was here?"
"Because I know you so well."
"The warden's my uncle, you idiot." She took out his note as Zuko berated himself. "The truth is, I guess I don't know you. All I get is a letter? You could've at least looked me in the eye when you ripped out my heart."
"I didn't mean to-"
"You didn't mean to?" How dare he? She held up the letter; she'd practically memorized it by now, but holding it kept her hands from shaking with rage. "Dear Mai. I'm sorry that you have to find out this way, but I'm leaving."
"STOP! This isn't about you. This is about the Fire Nation."
The Fire Nation? Was that supposed to help? "Thanks Zuko, that makes me feel all better." She hurled the note at him for good measure.
"Mai, I never wanted to hurt you." He stood, facing her. "But I have to do this to save my country."
"Save it? You're betraying your country."
"That's not how I see it."
She turned away. "I don't know what hurts more, Zuko, that you broke up with me or that you won't even give me a real reason."
"I couldn't drag you into it."
"Drag me into what?"
He stepped forward. "The entire world hates me, Mai. I'm a hunted man. My own family wants to kill me."
"Gee, I wonder why."
"I have to see this through."
"Why?" She jabbed a finger at him, forcing him to lean back on the chair. "What is so important that you'd abandon everything? That you'd turn your back on me?"
He looked down, hair falling in his face. "Peace."
"This war, it's destroying the Fire Nation, it's destroying the world!"
"Don't be stupid, Zuko, the war is building the Fire Nation. The rest of the world will be better off."
"Don't you see that's a lie!" He began gesturing wildly, pacing the small room. "Our whole lives we've been told that and it's wrong. You've been to the Earth kingdom, you've seen the refugees in Ba Sing Se, you know I'm right. This war is tearing the world apart. Destroying people, cities, tearing apart families, and all in our name. Saying someone is from the Fire Nation is an excuse to have them destroyed. But I can stop it. I can help end this war and finally bring peace. A peace the world needs more than anything." He stopped and looked into her face, desperate for her to believe him.
"So what, you're a martyr now?" She glared at him, ignoring his silent pleas. He broke first, turning toward the back wall.
"Ma'am." A guard appeared at the open door. "There's a riot going on. I'm here to protect you."
"I don't need any protection."
Behind her, Zuko laughed. "Believe me, she doesn't."
The guard walked into the room. "I'm sorry, but I'm under direct orders from your uncle to make sure nothing happens."
Suddenly Zuko shot a fire burst at the guard's feet; the idiot man jumped in front of Mai, blocking her view of the room. Shouting for him to get off, she grabbed his arms and flung him into the corner in time to see Zuko grab the door handle. The door was slammed in her face with enough force to open the narrow window. She glared out. Unable to open the door, Mai poured all of her hurt, all of the anger and frustration from the past week into her gaze. Zuko stared back, but instead of the pleas or passion from a moment before, all she saw was. . . sorrow. He was sorry. She was tempted to ignore it—maybe treachery did run in the family—but Azula had been right before: Zuko was anything but subtle.
She pounded on the door as more guards ran by. Zuko was sorry? She felt a strange release. Was that what she wanted? Maybe she wasn't like her uncle. Sure, it had been fun imagining how she would hurt him, but when the time came, she had felt no real desire to. Not seriously at least. Pain was for during a fight, and even then it was to be avoided. That was why she tended to pin down her opponents, aim for clothing rather than limbs. Was it enough to know that Zuko didn't want to hurt her, either? That she had gotten caught in the crossfire as much as in any knife fight? Finally a guard noticed her hammering and opened the door. She shoved past him and ran for the gondola platform.
Less than a minute was needed to see what was happening. Zuko and some unimportant prisoners were escaping on a gondola. Azula and Ty Lee were returning on the other. The guards had jammed the mechanism and were about to cut the line, dropping the escapees into the boiling lake. It only took seconds more for her to move into position.
The fight was quick and dirty. She was fast, and she was focused. She spared a glance when the gondola reached the top, which was all the opening Azula needed. She blasted lighting, forcing Mai to bend awkwardly backward, and shot a sheet of fire that singed Mai's dress and sent her sprawling. There was no time to grab the last two throwing knives from her sleeves before the guards grabbed her roughly by the arms. As she was dragged toward her former friend, Mai silently kicked herself for not keeping track of the other gondola. Maybe she could have made a run for it, hidden in the prison until Azula was gone. But no, this was right. This way, Azula would be too busy punishing Mai to chase after Zuko. Unlike some people, Mai did not abandon those who needed her.
"I love Zuko more than I fear you."