Summary: When Mai went out into the forest to vent a little, she never dreamed that she would be caught by a giant spirit bug who wanted to steal her face. But it was okay, because she was going to get out of this.
Pairings: Maiko, and a twisted kind of Maikoh that is entirely one-sided.
Warnings: General creepiness, some violence/fantasized violence.
A/N: It's finally done! I believe that this thing was about two months in the making; I had a long hiatus in the middle because I just didn't feel like writing it anymore. This basically looks at the idea of Koh kidnapping Mai, and becoming fascinated with her because she doesn't show emotion.
Truly, Koh had not thought that coming out of the spirit world to hunt would be so profitable, or amusing. Already, he had collected twelve faces.
The other spirits had become used to his tricks; he had hardly ever gotten to take their faces anymore. But these mortals were so easy. They took one look at him and screamed, their faces contorting into fear and horror. It was marvelous.
Humans were so weak-willed. Except for her. She was different.
The first time Koh met her, her face hadn't betrayed any emotion. There had been no momentary widening of her eyes when she first saw his form. Most mortals would have reacted with shock and disgust before they could control themselves. After all, seeing a giant centipede-like creature racing straight toward them tended to scare humans into an expression.
The human girl had merely blinked at him. Then, she reached into her robe with practiced hands and deftly flung a few knives at him. Although her actions had surprised him, he reacted instantly, weaving his body from side to side. The flimsy pieces of metal flew by him, landing harmlessly in the ground behind him.
Moving faster than her mortal eyes could see, he lunged at her, winding himself around her fragile body. He knew that he could effortlessly kill her at any moment by tightening his coils. Judging by her tension, she realized that as well. Yet her face showed nothing. He was quite impressed.
He moved himself so that his head was next to hers. "So you've had ample warning about me, hm?"
She didn't reply, staring at a point beyond his left ear. "You're afraid; I can tell." It was true. He could feel the slight tremors traveling down her soft mortal body.
"What do you want with me?" To her credit, her voice didn't shake, even as her heart pounded frantically in her chest.
"You already know the answer to that, but I applaud you for remaining emotionless thus far."
"What do you want?" she repeated. Was this mortal particularly stupid? Perhaps dimwittedness was the reason for her lack of expression. How dull that would be.
"Don't play dumb with me, human," he warned her.
"Who are you?"
This was starting to get irritating. "You know who I am."
"I am Koh." He twisted his neck so that he was looking right at her, before changing his face into a young woman's face. "The Face Stealer."
Mai wasn't one to have regrets. Things happened, and it did no good to dwell on them. Nevertheless, she was regretting ever having stepped foot into this Agni-cursed forest.
Why had she even investigated this place without bringing guards?
Ah, yes, she remembered. Because she let her emotions rule her. She had been in an argument with her jerk of a boyfriend and she had stormed off to vent privately. There was no way that she would blow up at him. It would be so mortifying to lose control of herself and show her emotions to Zuko.
Usually, she would have only spent a few hours working out her anger by throwing knives at trees, all the while gleefully pretending it was Zuko that she was aiming at. However, she was interrupted by the presence of a large, insect spirit.
She had never heard of such a spirit, one that had many legs and even more faces. When it had launched itself toward her, she hadn't faltered. She wasn't some helpless noble's wife who shrieked and fainted at the sight of a bug. Even if the bug was a spirit monster.
She reached into her robes and quickly located the knives that she needed. She smoothly moved her arms into a throw. She had been surprised by its speed, they way that it dodged her stilettos with ease, but she didn't let any emotion show on her face.
She had ignored her instincts, which were screaming at her to turn tail and run. She had wanted to prove to Zuko that she was perfectly capable of handling herself. It was kinda sweet that he cared so much about her, but honestly! She could look after herself!
In a sense, she was glad that this spirit had found her, and not some hapless girl who couldn't control her emotions. Mai stood a chance. Never before had she been so grateful for her upbringing. Without it, there was no way that she would have lasted this long.
Whenever she wanted to frown, she saw her father there, telling her not to show others that she was displeased. Anytime that she wanted to raise her eyebrows – "not something a lady does, dear" – she felt the weight of her mother's disapproving stare fall upon her.
She supposed that it was a good thing that she was so practiced in holding in her emotions. This would be easier for her. At the very least, it would be good practice for court politics.
Koh had taken her to a cave he had come across earlier in the forest and told her to stay there. Naturally, she tried to escape as soon as she thought that he was gone. Which was fine with him; he would have been disappointed if she hadn't.
It had been amusing to see her stumble through the forest, heedless of the scratches that she was acquiring. She wasn't covering her tracks very well. In fact, she was making such an awful racket as she fled, running into branches and making a lot of noise in general.
Someone with such a wonderfully blank face shouldn't be so noisy, crashing through bushes like that. He suspected that she was usually more attentive and mindful of her surroundings, but her panic had made her careless and more prone to thoughtless mistakes. How human.
It had been an easy feat to swoop down in front of her and encircle himself around her body. She didn't show any outwards signs of her shocked fear, but he hadn't thought that very likely anyway.
"Naughty girl," he murmured. "What did I tell you about staying put?"
"My name is Mai," she said. "Use it." Before he could comment on her bravery – or stupidity – in talking back to a spirit, she continued. "And did you really think that I would actually do what you told me to?"
He inclined his head in acknowledgement. "True. But you should listen to me. There are dangerous things lurking about in the night, didn't you know that?"
She eyed the body wrapped around her. "I've got a pretty good idea," she drawled.
He chuckled. She was an intriguing mortal. It was too bad that she was going to lose her face. She'd last a day, no more than that.
Three weeks later and he still hadn't stolen her face.
It was remarkable really. In all his years, he'd never encountered such a human. No matter what he said, what he did, her face never changed. No twitch gave her away, no minuscule tightening of her brow. He face was like a statue, cool and unchanging marble.
He loved that.
It had become a kind of game. He would try to find things that would affect her, and she would try and keep her face under control. Even if her face didn't show it, certain things stirred her emotions.
Mentioning her 'Zuko' was always fun.
Eventually they had settled into a routine. He would say all sorts of things in an attempt to provoke a reaction out of her, and she would ignore him. Then he would go out to hunt for her food. He was fairly certain that she wouldn't try to run away again. If she did, he would catch her.
Since he had first caught her, she had tried to escape no less than six times. Each time, he had caught her quickly and returned her to the cave. This time, she had managed to run quite a distance away from the cave before he stopped her.
She had been getting too daring. She seemed to be under the impression that she could misbehave without consequences. Koh had been too lenient with her. He had been indulging in the novelty such a fascinating mortal and hadn't been correcting her as harshly as he should have. Perhaps it was time to punish her.
Koh didn't say anything to her while he carried her back to the cave. It was best to let her mind wander, anticipating what was going to happen. She knew that she should be disciplined for her childish behavior.
Once they were in the cave he released her. She settled down into a sitting position, sitting up perfectly straight with her hands folded in her lap. So she was nervous. Good.
"Now, now, what have I told you about wandering around after dark?" She hadn't been wandering around, as they both knew; she had been trying to run away again. And Koh had foiled all of her precious little plans once more.
"Not to do it."
This always happened. She tried to escape, and he stopped her. Yet she didn't let any of her frustration show on her face.
"So why did you?"
"I was bored." He chuckled. From what he had gathered about her personality, this could actually be a valid reason for her.
"Remember what I said about the forest?" He paused, but she didn't say anything, so he continued, "There are things out there even more dangerous than me."
"Somehow I doubt that."
How sweet. "You flatter me."
"No really," he insisted. His tone could almost be called earnest. "If I could blush, I would. You don't know how long it's been since someone has complimented me."
She snorted, but her face was blank. "I wonder why."
"You're not a very happy mortal, are you?"
"I'm being held prisoner by a spirit who will steal my face if I show any kind of emotion. Would you be happy in my position?"
"Hm, you're right. I wouldn't be happy." He paused, letting her absorb that information. "I'd be positively delighted."
"You'd be…" she trailed off, apparently at a loss for words. Oh, she was so much fun when she got like this. She finally settled on, "Why?"
"For the thrill of it, of course."
"The thrill of it." Koh was sure that was a question, but the flat incredulity in it made it sound more like a statement.
"Mhm…you know what I'm talking about, don't you?"
He cut off her protests. "Of course you do. Think of the times that you almost get caught by me. The race of your heart, the electrifying knowledge that you might never smile again. And the rush of adrenaline, what a heady thing." He sighed. "Knowing that your future depends on your facial expressions. Doesn't it excite you? Stir up your blood? Inflame you?" He wound his body around hers. "If someone tried to steal my face, it would be pure ecstasy." He groaned. "Alas, no one has attempted."
"That's sick." Her face hadn't changed, but her tone was slightly disturbed.
"That's me, sweetheart." He had found that calling the mortal by such endearing terms troubled her more than she would like to admit.
"Don't call me that."
"And what are you going to do if I continue?" She didn't answer. She would do nothing. They both knew that.
Mai knew that she really shouldn't ask, but she couldn't help it.
"How do you steal faces?"
"You don't want to know, darling." He grinned at her, revealing a mouth full of sharp teeth. She shuddered and looked away.
Koh was standing above her. His gaze was always focused on her face, closely watching her. Mai felt like twitching. She suppressed the feeling. This was the perfect time to ask him something that had been bothering her for some time now. "Do you steal someone's face if they show emotion in their sleep?"
"Hmm. I don't know actually. No one has ever lasted long enough for me to find out."
She turned away from him, trying to go to sleep, desperately hoping that she wouldn't have any nightmares. From behind her, she heard a whisper.
Mai felt like she was suffocating. Her own face was smothering her. She was a stranger in her own body, trapped in this prison of flesh. If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine that she didn't have a face. Would that be so bad really?
Koh was staring at her. His face was right in front of hers, dark eyes burning into her own.
How long had it been since she had last eaten?
Everything was muffled, her vision dulled. She was so tired. So tired of not feeling. Black rose from the corners of her vision, swallowing her.
Koh was obsessed.
On the one hand, he wanted to preserve her. He wanted to preserve her face. And he hated that. Hated her.
Or rather, he almost hated her. He didn't truly hate her, because she was human and humans were below hatred. They were like dirt on the ground; they were just there. But this girl, this girl was almost worthy of his hate. That disturbed him, because mortals should not invoke such a response in him.
He glanced down at her from his resting place. Currently, she was roasting pieces of a pig-chicken over a small fire that she had built. She knew that he was watching her. Her shoulders were tight, giving away her discomfort. Yet her face was emotionless.
She had a beautiful face. He had said as much to her once. She had ignored him, as she seemed to do for so many of the things that he said to her, but he knew that his comment had unnerved her.
He didn't see why though. He had only been speaking the truth. Her face was truly a work of art. It was so perfectly proportioned, so flawless and unmarred by any ugly emotions.
Koh wanted to kill her for that. But if he killed her, then he would miss her sarcastic remarks, her witty banter. He didn't know when it had happened, but somehow, he had become attached to her, and not just for her face. He enjoyed their conversations, and her unique mortal perspective on everything, even if she was prickly and just the slightest bit snide.
Perhaps spending all those long centuries alone had affected him more than he had thought if he was so starved for companionship that even a human girl was a welcome partner.
And yet, he could not deny that he wanted her face. It was an incessant pull that he felt through his whole being.
A stray thought made him pause. What if she stayed expressionless and he never took her face?
The lifespan of a mortal was so short. Humans were like ash, delicate and easily blown away. In almost the blink of an eye he might realize one day that she was old, then dead.
He couldn't bear to have that happen. He needed that face. And if he couldn't steal it, then he would kill her. He would kill her, and then her face would be preserved forever in its youth.
No doubt her face would be flawless even in death. Her lips perfectly smooth, everything balanced, symmetrical, no tiny wrinkles on her brow. Surely her milky white skin would be untainted by any expression.
Although, her body…Koh frowned in distaste. What a traitorous thing. The subtle twitches and spasms, the trembling that traveled through her frame, they gave away how she really felt.
If he killed her, he would have to remove her head from her body. Yes, having just her severed head would be most enjoyable. Or maybe not even her head. He would peel her face away, carefully, lovingly, and keep that.
But keeping her face would be an eternal reminder of his failure. His lack of success in stealing her face would be immortalized.
But what a perfectly blank face it was, he thought, looking down at the girl. Apparently, she had deemed her meal sufficiently prepared, or, at least cooked enough that an acceptable amount of blood was dripping through her fingers. She viciously tore strips of meat away with her teeth, paying no heed to her burnt fingers. Hungry little mortal.
Well, she should be, considering she hadn't eaten in two days. He had come up with a rather brilliant punishment for her annoying tendency to run away. He simply starved her for a few days every time he caught her. It was quite an effective strategy, which had the added effect of keeping her too weak to think about escaping. The mortal's need for a constant supply of food was turning out to be very useful. She seemed to have learned her lesson.
Time passed in silence, broken only by the sound of the girl's enthusiastic eating. Koh was content to simply watch her face closely, waiting for any emotion to cross her face, however fleeting.
She glanced up at him, then flicked her eyes away and continued to eat, deliberately ignoring him. Koh smiled.
"Let me tell you a joke."
"Is it about the faces that you've stolen?"
"You have a sick sense of humor."
At first, Mai hadn't been that scared of Koh. He had seemed to be a bit affable, even though he was creepy. The stares and silences didn't bother her. She could ignore the subtle barbs that he directed at her, act like they didn't lodge under her skin. She had been sure that she would escape.
But even after she had stopped attempting to run away, even when she realized how dangerous he was, she held on to the hope that someone would come for her. Surely Zuko would.
"Why do you do it?"
"Do what, child?"
This was one of the things about her that he found himself so fascinated by. She would remain quiet for days on end, and then ask a question with quite an amount of forethought put into it. "Now why would you want to know the answer…" all of the sudden, he whirled towards her, allowing his face to become a blue oni face, "to such a personal question?" The angry tone of his voice seemed to echo in the silence. She stared blankly at him. Brave girl.
"If I'm going to lose my face, I want to at least know why."
"Hm…good answer." He turned away from her. "Well, to answer your question, mortals don't think. They say things that they don't mean. They react without considering the consequences. They let their emotions control their actions. Humans are such noisy, shallow creatures. Someone needs to keep them in line." He whirled around, changing his face into an old man's.
Bored eyes stared back at him from an expressionless face. He smiled and changed his face back into his standard female Noh mask. "Unfortunately, no one else has risen to the challenge, so it falls to me to remind the human race that they are only mortal."
The girl was silent for some time. Her gaze was unfocused as she stared straight ahead. He was content to watch her pleasantly blank face, examining the curves and dips. The fire flickered, throwing different parts of her face into shadow. Fascinating.
And it's fun too," he added. What an interesting affect that had on her. Her hands curled into fists, squeezing the fabric of her dress. She tried to speak a few times, but all that passed by her lips was air.
Finally she managed to get out, "If I don't show you any expression, will you let me go?" He noticed that her voice trembled even as her face remained impassive.
"We've been over this, girl. I will never let you go."
"My name is Mai," she replied blandly. "Not girl, or human, or mortal. We've been over that as well."
"So we have, so we have," he murmured, changing his face into a man's. As expected, she didn't twitch. "But I make it a point to never refer to my prey by what they call themselves. It gives them the wrong impression."
"The wrong impression?"
"Mhm. They might start to think too highly of themselves, that they're worthy to be addressed by their names."
"So, according to you, we're worthless?"
"Not worthless, sweetheart," he said, enjoying her flinch. "In fact, I find you humans to be rather admirable, in a certain way. You're all so delicate, so weak, and yet you're constantly struggling to do things, make something of yourselves, leave your mark on history. You're always trying to claw your way to the top, to avoid death. Of course, in that regard humans are so foolish. You try and escape the inevitable. You refuse to give up and just die, unlike the other creatures of this world."
"Alright, so we're not worthless, but you don't care for us either way."
"You're wrong," she said.
"You do care for us, at least some of us. But it's more than that. You're jealous."
He laughed. "Foolish mortal, trying to rationalize me. Do you think that giving me such human traits like jealousy will change who I am? Are you trying to make sense of me?"
Her steady gaze did not waver. "You're jealous of us. You want to be like us. At the very least, you want to be stable like us. Unchanging. But you can't help but want to take our faces. I don't know why, but you're jealous like that as well."
"Silly girl." Observant girl.
Mai wanted to smile. Or frown. Anything but this blankness.
She had to resist the temptation, because even though it seemed like Koh wasn't in the cave with her, that didn't mean that he wasn't watching. He had said that he was going to go hunting for her food, but she couldn't be sure that he wasn't watching her, waiting for her to lower her guard.
She felt tense, felt like eyes were burning into her body. Peeling away her layers, until she was nothing but emotions, bared to the world. She felt disgusting. Her body was hot, her face flushed, but her hands were cold. That didn't mean anything though. Her hands were always cold these days.
She could do nothing but sit there, trying to ignore the prickling feeling on her skin. These kinds of thoughts were no good. She might make some kind of facial expression if her thoughts continued in this direction. She felt so exposed. She leaned forward, hiding her face behind her hair.
Ew. Her hair was so tangled and greasy. It had always been her one vanity. Well, that and her nails. But her nails were broken, their jagged ends covered in dirt and blood. There was nothing that she could do about them. They would just have to grow out on their own. She should try and make her hair at least a bit presentable. Yes, that was a safe topic to think about.
So she sat there, trying in vain to comb her hair with her fingers. It was a monotonous task, but it was good for taking her mind off of her current situation. If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine that it was Zuko's hands running through her hair. Zuko smiling at her. Protecting her. Caring about her.
Her fingers jerked, yanking a knot in her hair. Pain flared on her scalp as she looked from Koh to the pig-chicken corpse in front of her.
He smirked at her, clearly pleased that he had managed to startle her. "Here's your dinner."
When one dated the Fire Lord, they learned a lot of trivia about the Fire Nation. One of the things that Mai had learned was that pig-chickens weren't native to the Fire Nation. They were shipped over from the Earth Kingdom and kept in special farms. These farms were usually small, family-owned businesses which did quite well.
However, there was one problem that these farms ran into. Pig-chickens frequently escaped their pens (although how they did that was a mystery to Mai; by Agni those things were dumb), then died in the wild. Apparently, they couldn't adapt to the Fire Nation climate.
Mai didn't think much about this fact at first, but later, as she ate, she began to wonder just where exactly Koh had found the pig-chicken. It was possible that he had found a recently escaped one, but unlikely. That only left one option, one that Mai didn't want to think about. But she had to know. She asked him where he had found it.
"A nice little farm south-east of here."
Dread curled in Mai's stomach. "Was there anyone at the farm?"
He changed his face into a young boy's. "Not anymore. There were a few humans," – his face became that of a woman with care lines around her eyes – "but they're dead now." His face changed into a middle-aged man's. His began to rapidly change his face between the three faces. They were all new.
Mai kept eating, even as her stomach rolled. Her hands shook. She didn't bother to try and steady them. She had never considered where her food had been coming from.
Koh wound his body around hers. "My, my, what interesting reactions."
"I would like to do my own hunting from now on."
"If you were going to be rescued, it would have happened by now, child." Koh was standing right next to her, uncomfortably close. His breath smelled of death, the cloying odor of rotting meat.
"Someone will rescue me." Her answer was confident. She didn't dare admit that she had been thinking the same thing.
He laughed. Mai caught a whiff of decay.
Koh was watching her again. Mai could feel his eyes tracing over her, burning a path up her body and resting on her face.
The hair on the back of her neck prickled. She repressed the shiver that threatened to break loose, and viciously sliced into the dead pig-rabbit. Steady hands peeled back its skin, separating muscle from bone. She paid no mind to the blood that welled up and spilled over onto her hands, soaking them a deep red. She didn't give any indication that she was disgusted with this, just kept cutting swaths of meat from the carcass. She needed to eat.
"You would make a wonderful wife," he said.
He chuckled when she stiffened.
She smelled delicious.
All that fear, hidden away in such a delicate body.
He wanted to taste her, to see if she tasted as delicious as she smelled. Run his tongue over smooth, salty skin. How would she react if he did that? Would she scream? Move away? Or would she endure it in stoic silence?
He wanted to find out. So badly.
She could feel her heart, beating rapidly in her chest, so hard that it hurt. Her throat tightened, she wasn't getting enough air. Her lungs ached.
"I can taste your fear mortal. Let it go," he cooed.
She wanted to rage at him, to lash out and scream and claw at his faces until he had nothing left. Instead, all she said was a single word. "No."
"You will. Eventually."
"I will not."
She wanted Zuko.
She wished he was here, so that she could run into his arms and kiss him and cry and laugh and smile and tell him how much she loved him even though she had never said it out loud before.
She couldn't do that though, because Zuko wasn't here. He wasn't coming to rescue her. She had been stupid for thinking that he would.
And yet, a tiny part of her still hoped.
His breath came in hot puffs against her neck.
"What are you doing?" She tried to ask him as flatly as possible.
"You smell wonderful. Did you know that?"
"I haven't had a shower in Agni-knows-how-long. Don't be disgusting." She ignored the thrill of fear that shot through her.
He inhaled deeply, making a noise of approval. "Humans always smell like fancy soaps and lotions. They try and mask their baser scents. You smell much better like this."
"It's a compliment."
"Don't give me compliments."
"Why not?" His voice was deceptively innocent.
"Don't try that with me. You know perfectly well why not. I don't want to be complimented by the thing that's going to steal my face."
"So you've finally recognized your fate, have you?"
"You've realized the hopelessness of your position. You've accepted that you're eventually going to show emotion."
Mai reran the last few sentences over in her head, cursing when she realized her mistake.
"What's wrong? Nothing to say to that?"
He was right, and Mai hated him for that.
When Koh mentioned the Avatar, Mai thought that she must have heard wrong. The stress must have been getting to her. But when she asked him to repeat what he had said, he said the same thing.
He had met the Avatar. Tried to steal his face. Failed, obviously.
She hadn't known?
Mai didn't respond.
She was too busy trying to keep the anger off of her face.
Aang had met this creature. He had never told them. She could have been prepared, could have somehow avoided this whole situation.
She knew that it was completely unreasonable for her to be feeling this way, but she couldn't help it. Irrational rage bubbled up inside of her. Images of her screaming, cursing Aang as she threw knives at him flashed in front of her vision. And yet, she knew that it wasn't Aang that she was destroying in those visions. Because Aang didn't have so many faces.
"I wonder what expression you will finally show. Will it be anger? Fear? Passion?" He wound his way sinuously around her body.
"I'm trying to sleep."
"Of course, of course. Don't mind me."
She wanted to tell him that it was hard to fall asleep when he was pressed against her like that. She didn't say anything though. He wouldn't care. In fact, he would probably find it amusing. She curled up on her side, and tried to ignore the feeling of rough plates brushing against her back.
She was breaking. Koh could see it.
It was visible in the way that she walked, like her very soul was being weighed down.
It showed in the way she talked, as her retorts grew less and less sharp.
It was there in her eyes, when she glanced at the entrance of the cave hopelessly.
She was slowly giving way to despair, and Koh was loving every minute of it.
Skin, gut and clean an animal.
Skin, gut and clean an animal.
Ignore Koh. Don't listen. You don't care.
Skin, gut and clean an animal.
Try to sleep.
Don't show him any emotion.
Don't listen to Koh. Zuko will come.
"Leave me alone."
"Don't have to be like that. Just show me some emotion and all of this will be over. You're a special human, so I'll even be gentle when I take your face. It will only hurt a bit."
"I hate you."
"Show me how much."
"Leave me alone."
"He will come for me."
The day that Zuko found her was like any other day. She woke up early, and hunted in the dawn's light. It was hard to find animals at this time, but her stomach couldn't be ignored.
Mai threw a knife at an unfortunate squirrel-rabbit. It died instantly, the knife protruding obscenely out of its eye. Even though she despised killing so many animals, she knew that it was necessary. She had only managed to find one type of berries in the area around her cave, and she was fairly certain that they were poisonous. Animals were her only option.
That was what she told Koh. But the truth was that she didn't try as hard as she could have to find any edible plants. There was a good reason for that. When she went hunting, Koh didn't come with her. The one time that he had followed her, he scared away all of the game. Apparently, his presence sent animals into a panic. Hunting was the only time that she knew for certain that Koh wasn't watching her.
She didn't dare show any emotion though. She didn't want to get into the habit of making facial expressions again. She couldn't afford to.
She walked over to the squirrel-rabbit, crouched down, and pulled her knife out, ignoring the wet sound. The animal was too small and thin. She would need to find another one, or she would be hungry right after eating it. She wiped her knife on the grass before standing.
And came face to face with Zuko.
Her knife dropped from nerveless fingers.
This could not be real. She could not be seeing this. Zuko wasn't here. This was all some hallucination brought about by too much stress. Or maybe this was all a trick Koh had came up with to shock her into some kind of facial expression. Well, it wouldn't work.
She stared at not-Zuko. He stared back at her. It was amazing how much effort Koh had put into this. He looked exactly like she remembered him. No, she realized, not exactly. There were lines around his eyes that hadn't been there before. Tension gripped his frame, a kind of tension that she had never seen before.
She slowly began to kneel, keeping her eyes locked with his as she blindly groped for her knife.
"Very funny, Koh," she called out. Her voice trembled. "But you can't honestly expect me to believe that this is Zuko, can you?"
The knife was familiar and comfortable in her hand. She felt numb. She distantly realized that she was gripping it too tight. Metal bit into her hand, the sharp pain helping her focus.
"Mai, it's me. Zuko."
She wanted to scream at him, scream that only Zuko could talk to her in that tone of voice. This imposter didn't deserve to say his name. Her hand tightened around the knife. A trickle of blood made its way down her knuckles. Focus.
"Go away. You are not Zuko. Leave me alone."
"Why do you think that I'm not Zuko?" His voice was tender, disarming.
"Zuko isn't coming for me." A small part inside of her broke as she said those words.
"It's me. I'm here. Mai, please, you have to believe me!"
Don't show any expression. "Zuko would be more passionate. He would feel more than this. You are not Zuko."
"Why do you keep repeating that?"
She didn't answer.
"Is it because you're too scared to believe that it's me? Because, Mai, I swear to you, I'm real. I'm not some figment of your imagination. I'm here for you."
"If you're really Zuko – and I'm not saying that you are – why didn't you come for me sooner? Zuko wouldn't have left me here. He wouldn't have." There was a misery in her voice that made her embarrassed to hear. Her face hadn't twitched, but the fact that this person could hear her raw desperation made her want to sink into the ground. If the earth swallowed her up, she would be safe. Nothing would be watching her. She would be alone in the dark. Maybe she would suffocate.
Oh, he was taking again. " – love you, Mai. I swear I do. Please, we have to leave. Koh could come at any minute."
She wanted to believe him. So much. But she couldn't.
"Mai, it's me. You asked me why I'm not reacting more. The answer is because I don't know where Koh is. I can't show any emotions. You know this. We need to leave now. Please, come with me."
She needed to be sure. "What did I give you on your seventh birthday?"
That was the day that they had first spoken. The day that Mai had realized how kind Zuko was. She had been horrified when she had realized that it had been the Fire Prince that she had crashed into. She had been so sure that he would be angry at her. But no, he had been quite understanding, even as he had pinched his nose to stem the bleeding.
No one else knew that it had been she who had done that to him. Zuko told them that he had fallen. If this person couldn't answer her question, she would know that he wasn't really Zuko. Her grip on the knife tightened. If that was the case, she would kill him.
There was confusion in his eyes, then a flash of amusement. "A bloody nose and a split lip."
It was him.
Zuko was here. He had come for her.
For the second time that morning, she dropped her knife. A tremble rushed through her. Her body was straining, she wanted to run toward him and wrap her arms around his neck. She wanted to cry and laugh and scream. She couldn't do any of that though. Not until she was sure that Koh wasn't watching her.
She walked toward him and placed her hand in his. She knew how she must look, covered in grime and blood, but he didn't move away. His hand tightened on hers.
"How did you get here?" she asked.
"Aang's flying bison."
"Where is it?" She couldn't help but think that she would notice a giant flying bison.
"It's in the next clearing over. We didn't want to alert Koh to the fact that we were here. We assumed that he's in a cave. Is that right?"
"Yeah." Her voice cracked.
Her legs felt weak. She focused on the feeling of her hand in his, his body beside hers. It had been so long since she had felt the warmth of another human being.
As she walked, she took stock of what she looked like. Her hair was a tangled, matted mess and she was covered in all kinds of filth. Her clothing was ripped and dirty, and the bottom of her dress had been torn off completely, exposing the scratches that covered her legs. She was sure that she looked worse than she felt.
She couldn't help but wonder what Zuko saw when he looked at her. It was vain, she knew, but she had always been conscious of her appearance. He lightly touched her shoulder, bringing her attention back to her surroundings.
The Avatar stood in front of his sky-bison. It was strange to see his face so cold, devoid of its usual lively expression. His eyes flicked over her body, quickly taking in her state. For a moment, she could see anger on his face before it was wiped clean again.
"Come, Mai. Let's go." He jumped, using Airbending to propel himself all the way on his sky-bison's head.
Her legs ached at the thought of climbing up to the saddle, but she stubbornly grabbed a handful of its fur and pulled herself up to the top. The Avatar was talking, Mai realized.
"– when we started getting reports of people turning up dead without faces, I knew what we were dealing with. There weren't that many, but faceless bodies are pretty distinctive." Her hands started to shake. She didn't want to hear about this. She couldn't listen to him talk about the people that had died.
The Avatar glanced back at her. She knew what she looked like, pale and fragile, covered in all sorts of revolting substances. What she saw in his gaze was foreign to her, but she knew what it was. He pitied her. She didn't mind though, because he stopped talking.
She curled into Zuko. He didn't say anything about her smell, though it had to bother him. Her face twitched. Shivers wracked her frame.
It finally sunk in. She was free.
A wave of dizziness washed over her. It was over. She was safe.
The dam was breaking. Everything that she had bottled up was rushing out and she was powerless to stop it. She could only cling to Zuko as she was battered with emotion after emotion. He was real, the only solid thing that she felt through the tumult of her emotions. All through the storm, there was Zuko, holding her and whispering assurances in her ears.
She didn't know how long she clung to him, screaming and crying and feeling. When she finally came to her senses, she realized that they were already in the air. The Avatar – Aang — was stroking the sky-bison's head, talking quietly to it. She had no doubt that he had heard her. There was no way that he couldn't have.
Before, this lapse of control would have sent shame running through her, but now, she embraced it. She was a real person, not some china doll, and she had the right to express herself.
Tears leaked from her eyes as she smiled so widely that her face hurt. Wind blew her hair back as she spread her arms out. She started to laugh. The sound surprised her, but her joy couldn't be contained. She heard Zuko join her, and felt her soul fly free.
A flash in the grass caught his eye. Koh looked down at the knife. The blood on it gleamed dully. He looked up. A small shadow passed in front of the sun as the distant sound of laughter carried on the wind.
His smile was sharp. "I'll see you again…Mai."
A/N: I tried to give this a creepy, creepy tone, with erotic hints to make it even more disturbing. So what are your thoughts on this? Did I succeed in my goal? Review and let me know.