"How kind of you to join us, Fire Lord Zuko."
Neither Mai nor Zuko missed the way Panther's fingers twitched around the sword hilt, or the way his men moved closer to their leader defensively. The room fell silent for a few seconds; it made the hair on the back of their necks rise in what seemed to be a combination of fear and anticipation for what would surely follow. And then the blond man moved. Mai flinched slightly and so did Zuko, because they had both expected he'd just go for it. But, instead, Panther just stepped back.
The question that formed hang in the air; why? Why did he withdraw when he could easily kill her, now that his fantasy was complete?
Probably one of his sick games, Mai guessed. Another trick, no doubt.
Truth is, Sokka's plan had troubled Panther, mainly due to the fact that, despite its simplicity, it had managed to fool his men, easily surpassing their prowess. The thought baffled him, making him pause.
Zuko took advantage of that small pause to move closer to his wife. Mai heaved a sigh of relief—even though she could hardly be described as a coward, she couldn't deny the spark of fear that had turned her stomach into a knot. The proximity of her husband made it fade away.
The black-eyed man assessed the team before him, his eyes flickering to every face. Scanning. Searching for something that none of them could understand. One corner of his mouth lifted upwards in a smirk—but it wasn't mischievous, as Team Avatar had expected. It was impressed. Then, Panther laughed. Not one of his usual, confident laughs, but a single, soft bark that oozed with amazement. "What an unexpected turn of things," he murmured.
Sokka groaned in complain. "Excuse me?"
"Your little scheme," Panther explained. "I'm impressed."And he did sound impressed. For once, his tone lacked the cockiness and arrogance that the gang had grown so accustomed to.
Sokka shook his head in an attempt to get rid of his shock. "Did we walk in the wrong room?"
Zuko took one step closer to Panther—one step closer to Mai. For a moment, he seemed afraid to move or say anything; afraid that any little action could result to Panther's sword being placed over his wife's neck again. But even though his eyes followed Zuko's movements carefully, the black-eyed man seemed relaxed.
For now, Zuko reminded himself. "What do you mean?" The young fire-bender heard himself asking, in an attempt to identify the origins of the leader's calmness.
"Funny, isn't it?" Panther scoffed and his eyes turned a little bit colder as they darted towards the four spies that brought Mai in. "I trust my most capable men—my spies—and they don't even consider making sure that no one is following when they come to my hideout!" His voice had started rising, as his carbon eyes glared at his men. "Instead, they gladly lead you to our little party—how nice of them, don't you think?"
"Maybe you should stop blaming everyone but yourself," Aang advised. "It's over, Panther. Give up."
"Over?" Panther smirked. "Why, young Avatar, it hasn't even started yet." With that, he snapped his fingers—the clicking sound echoing on the stone walls—and his men drew their weapons with appalling synchronization. "Kill them all. But leave the Fire Lady alive. She's mine."
Team Avatar took a step back as the mob surrounded them menacingly. Thinking quickly of a way to win them some time, Aang created a wave of air with his glider, which pushed Panther's men back, causing some of them to fall down or crash on the walls.
"Aang, go break her chains!" Zuko hissed as the men struggled to stand up, desperate to free his wife, who was still too close to Panther. "We'll cover you."
Nodding the monk ran to the Fire Lady, glider ready to push back anyone that would dare interrupt him.
Zuko turned back to the remaining Huàn members. His dao swords flaming, he ran towards to the one man he wanted to distract most—Panther. Awaiting his assault, the blond man blocked the firebender's attack with his own blade, producing a metallic sound, like nails scratching a glass. Pulling his double blades back, Zuko cursed under his breath and ducked down to avoid one of Panther's swings. Kicking out his leg, he shot a blast towards the black-eyed man, which he diluted with a wave of his gloved hand. The Fire Lord made for him again.
Meanwhile, Sokka sweated at the effort to keep two men at bay. Shoving his knee in one's stomach, making him fall down, he knocked the other one out with the hilt of his sword. Turning back to his remaining enemy, he fought like there was no tomorrow.
Aang, having released Mai by breaking her chains with a whip of water, proceeded to help Zuko with the men that had started surrounding him. "On Zuko's belt." He reminded her as he left.
The young Fire Lady, having no weapon on her, moved to her husband's side, noticing the small knives safely strapped on his black sash. Realizing there was no time to fill her holsters; she pulled a handful of them out and placed her back against Zuko's. The firebender, putting all his muscle strength to his dao swords, pushed Panther back and onto the ground.
"How are you holding?" Mai shouted at him, as one of her shuriken stars pinned a man on the ground, but not before grazing his collarbone and staining his clothes with dark blood.
"I'm fine," Zuko breathed, his blades kicking a man unconscious, as Panther struggled to stand up. "What about you?"
She nodded. "I'm good."
The battle kept going with Panther's men falling quickly due to the team's prowess. Raven fought at his leader's side loyally with Bear trying to cause some damage, despite his injuries. Mai pulled her knives out of Zuko's belt with agility, while the young firebender tried to keep the Huàn leader's swings at bay as Aang helped Sokka fend off attacks.
The knife-thrower steadied a knife between her middle and index finger and, keeping her balance, threw it straight to a swordsman. He stared at the blade wide-eyed as it aimed for his forehead and, raising his sword as a shield a split second before the contact; he managed to reverse the knife's direction, making it point straight to the heart of an unnoticed thirteen-year-old boy that trembled in a corner.
Despite the tough fight with Panther, that was when Zuko froze as he heard Raven scream; "Tylian! My son!"
Everything happened in slow motion; or so it seemed.
Zuko didn't register his decision as he ran between the blade and the young child. Pushing him out of the way, he fell on the ground with the trembling boy in his arms—but not before the knife had pierced the firebender's ribs.
Everyone—even Panther—stopped fighting, the thought of a child dying making them look at their bloody swords with disgust as they turned their heads towards the boy. Only to see the boy safe and the Fire Lord injured.
"Zuko!" Mai ran next to her husband, kneeling beside him, as Raven did the same. The young firebender groaned in pain as his wife tried to lift his body up straight. Her apprehension was clear on her face as her hands fumbled with his tight sash. Tearing it down, she gasped in worry and bit down her sobs when she noticed how deep the cut was.
"I'm fine." He coughed, one hand covering his bloody wound and the other Mai's hand. "T-The…boy?"
"He…" Raven's voice quivered as he hugged his son tightly against his chest, the relief and gratefulness he felt apparent on his every feature. "He's alive. You saved him."
Zuko nodded weakly, glad that the boy was fine. The knife, stabbed just under his heart, hurt him too much to speak. "Mai…" he breathed.
The black-haired girl shook her head, refusing to listen to the goodbye he would sure try to say. "Katara!" She screamed. "We need Katara!"
Aang squeezed Mai's shoulder, looking down at his friend in grief for a split second. "I'll go see if she's close," he whispered and ran out of the room.
The Fire Lady stroked her husband's pale face, pushing his sweaty hair stuck on his forehead and temples out of the way. Listening to his still-beating heart, she tried to control her frantic breathing. The knife that had buried itself in his chest was her knife; a blade that left her own hand. If anything happened to him, she would blame no one but herself, for not being more careful, for not recognizing the danger.
"Ugh!" His breathless groan sounded far-off the distance to the young girl, but it was loud enough for her to flinch.
"Zuko, buddy, Katara's on the way," Sokka mumbled. "Hold on."
Seizing the great opportunity that appeared, Panther readied his sword and motioned for the others to attack. However, none of them moved. Glaring at them, Panther's eyes blazed with black fire. "What are you waiting for?!" Panther shouted. "Kill them!"
The pause that followed predisposed him of the change that would follow. The betrayal met him with a clash that left a deep scar; a scar that gave life to his anger and turned it to a frenzied rage.
"The Fire Lord saved my son," Raven whispered, the emotions flowing inside him with so much force he could hardly speak. "I—I'm not going to turn against him."
Mai looked at Zuko and his slumping eyes expressed the same question, as his breathing got more and more ragged.
Panther's fists clenched and unclenched. "But he killed his mother!" He said through gritted teeth.
"He?" Raven inquired. "I do not think so. Surely, Panther, even you can see that the Fire Lord poses no threat."
"That…" The leader started, his words pronounced with pure infuriation. "Is not what you used to believe."
"I know…" Raven said. "And I recognize my mistakes—I've seen proof today. Proof that I hold in my arms; safe."
"Raven is right," Bear continued. "For so long, you've been telling us that they only care about power. Power and blood. But this is not what I saw tonight."
"If you want him," Hawk said loudly, "you will have to kill us first."
The crowd, who had previously fought the Fire Lord with no mercy, now expressed their agreement with loud shouts. The trio—Sokka, Mai and an almost-unconscious Zuko—watched in awe as the remaining huàn members dropped their weapons.
"What on earth is happening?" Sokka whispered, enthralled by the unexpected turn of things.
"That," Panther growled to Hawk, determined not to let them slip away from his grip, "can be arranged." He readied his stance and outstretched his hand, prepared to bring the whole stone-made room down and over their heads.
"Not today, kitten." A voice, coming from the open door, said. Before Panther had time to understand what was happening, Toph, bumping her foot on the ground, wrapped Mai's chains—that were previously resting on the floor—around Panther's body, allowing him no move.
The blond earth-bender let out a roar, as he kneeled down, unable to move or break his chains. No matter how much he twisted around, the metal-made rope was tightly bound around him.
That was when Katara and Aang rushed in. The young waterbender, spotting Zuko's body some feet away, sat herself next to him. He now was unconscious, which worried Mai even more.
"Katara?" The knife-thrower whispered brokenly, feeling her husband getting heavier in her arms as each second passed.
"He'll be okay," she assured Mai, as her hands pulled out the blade, making Zuko hiss in pain and Mai flinch. She worked the water above his chest empirically; the swirling water seemed to soothe both Zuko and his wife.
"He better be." Mai murmured, resting her forehead against his. "If you make it out of here alive, I swear I'm going to kill you."
She felt him move in her arms as he whispered; "I heard that."
He didn't have time to say anything else as her lips were on his. And he didn't care if he died right there—because she was safe, right there, kissing him and Panther was captured.
"We'll be fine," he murmured as she pulled back.
"From Earth we raise and Earth we shall become. May Yan be remembered for his honor and courage. Do not mourn his loss, my friends, but honor his memory."
The Earth sage's voice was a small buzz in the background and none of Team Avatar registered most of them. Yan had passed away a day after Panther's capture. His conscience was clear. No guilt filled his mind, no qualms haunted him—he had helped as much as he could and he had been proud of that.
The funeral was simple and the ceremony humble. He had been buried under the heavy soil of Earth, as imposed by the Earth Kingdom's tradition. And despite their grief, the gang felt happy for him because he finally found calmness and harmony.
Shan, Panther's father, met the gang as they were leaving Yan's tomb. He looked tired and his face looked older, more wrinkled than usual, even though it had been a day since they hadn't seen him. "Kyan…" He whispered. "Did you…" He took a deep breath. "Is he alive?"
Sokka nodded. "He's alive."
Shan closed his eyes in relief, grateful for the gang's decision. "What will happen to him?"
"He'll be taken to the Fire Nation Capitol's prison," Aang said, his hand reaching for Katara's. "There, he will have time to think."
"Yes," Shan agreed. "He will."
Back to the Fire Nation, life started getting back to normal. Zuko spent most of his time catching up with the scrolls he had missed during his journey to Ba Sing Se, but always found time for Mai—who, after insisting that the bodyguards Zuko had hired weren't necessary, was finally free to train herself, read and walk in the gardens alone.
Sokka, having decided to stay with Mai and Zuko for a little while more, spent most of his time in the kitchen, being incredibly fond of the Fire Nation cuisine, with Suki being the only thing that could take him away from his meal. Aang and Katara decided to try to find another air bison, so they set out their journey on Appa, while Toph returned back to the school she had built.
Panther had been imprisoned and would remain so until Zuko decided otherwise. His father, Shan, visited him occasionally, despite Panther's accusations of his being a traitor. After getting over his anger, Zuko realized that people can change, like he had, and, if Panther ever decided to, he would be the first to give him another chance.
Sitting by the turtle-duck pond, relaxing under the dew of the apple tree, Mai and Zuko thought that it was the continuous support from their friends and each other that kept them strong throughout their difficult quest and helped them stop their enemies. Complete selflessness was what saved them from inevitable death.
"See?" Zuko murmured. "We can do anything together."
"Yeah," Mai agreed. "I guess we can."
Placing a finger under her chin, he tilted her head upwards, his lips meeting hers with usual eagerness. Smiling against each other's mouths, they knew that, as long as they had each other, thing were okay.
Yes! I'm finally back! After a long writer's block, I finally managed to finish this story. Please, do let me know what you think of it—it's the final chapter. It's unedited, but my beta is working on it, so it'll be replaced soon with the edited version.
It may be a little bit rushed, but I have neither the time nor the inspiration to make it better, even though I want to. I love Mai and Zuko and I'm proud that I finally managed to finish a story with them as the protagonists.
I feel sorry for my characters (a.k.a Panther and Yan). Even though one of them was evil, I really liked him. I do have a tendency to like evil characters. Haha!
I want to thank everyone for fav-ing and reviewing this story as well as having the patience to wait for the final chapter. Special thanks goes to NinjaKick, who edited this and many more of my stories. I also want to thank Maikoluvr because, with her being a guest, I could not thank her personally and properly.
Please, do check the rest of my Maiko stories if you haven't already.
How do you feel that this story is over? :( I feel teary-eyed.
Belated happy new year everyone! 2013! Like, wow!
So, that's all. Stay flaming, keep drinking cactus juice and, well, watching A:tLA.
P.S I have no idea if Earth sages exist.