A/N: Holy Connoli! SORRY SORRY SORRY this took me for-freaking-ever to write! Work is kicking my behind and when I'm not there I'm asleep. Exhaustion pretty much sums it up… Anywho, sorry again for the delay in this one! Hope you all enjoy!
A Traitor's Path
Sometime in the past month – though she wasn't sure when – she'd somehow grown accustomed to the bars. As much as she hated to admit it, she'd resided to the fact weeks ago that it was quite possible that she would die behind these miserable bars. She sat in her cell, running her fingers along the cold jagged edges methodically, anticipating the day that they would no longer bind her – in one form or another – to this terrible place. This dreadful place where the echo of scurrying rats was the sound she fell asleep to and the stench of burnt flesh was the smell that she awoke to.
"Don't you know who I am?" she had argued.
"You're a traitor," they had answered, "and an accomplice to a conspirator."
"My father shall hear of this!" she had yelled.
"He disowned your name when he heard of your crime against the Fire Nation," they had answered.
"I will kill each one of you after I escape!" she had screeched – that was while they were dragging her past the bars, to her own set of prison shackles at the end reserved for traitors.
To this they only laughed hysterically.
They knew as well as she that they had confiscated each one of her precious weapons that night they stormed into her bedroom and threw the cuffs across her wrists, informing her that she was now an enemy to the Fire Nation.
"Enemy of the Fire Nation?" she had asked calmly, somehow still keeping a hold on her self as they bound her wrists behind her back. "What am I being charged with?"
"Harboring a fugitive," was the quick answer she received.
"I've never done such a thing! What fugitive?!" she asked indignantly.
A snicker followed and suddenly another guard was in her face waving a piece of parchment in front of her that she didn't recognize. "We found your boyfriend's letter."
She had narrowed her eyes, staring openly at the familiar handwriting scrawled across the wrinkled scroll. "I've never seen that in my life…" she had said resolutely as she turned her nose in the other direction.
"It doesn't matter," the guard had sneered, "you're a traitor to the Fire Nation now."
"By who's order?!" she had yelled feverishly as they began to drag her out of her bedroom. "This is absurd!"
The Fire Nation guard had smiled with slimy yellow teeth, his breath a hot stench on her face as he answered with more pleasure than the situation allowed, "Princess Azula."
At that name, she had fallen silent. And so she had been silent as they roughly escorted her out of her house and into the carriage that brought her here… to the bars and the rats…
Her plots of revenge were futile. But she knew somewhere in the back of her tired and weakened mind that one day Azula would pay for turning her back on her. Azula would pay for betraying the years of loyal service she had received from her so blindly.
She could only wonder during her countless nights in her solitary cell what Zuko's unread letter could have possibly said and if it was worth her being in this wretched place now…
She was awoken from her memories as the door to her cell swung open. Anticipating the questioning that was to follow – there was always questioning – she turned her back and set her golden eyes into a piercing glare. She knew what today was… It'd been a week since their last visit…
The guard slammed the door shut, and Mai let out a sigh in disgust. She could smell the stench of ash and she knew that Azula was probably pacing the room, feeling for the right moment to break her…
"How have you been?" Azula asked coolly in a way that might be mistaken as friendly if one didn't know any better.
She remained silent with her back still turned to her visitor. Had she been anyone else, Azula might have been offended by this, but strangely the Princess still allowed subtleties as these to pass between "old friends" as she put it…
"I hope the food has been okay," she added – Mai could just see her scrutinizing her pointy nails as she spoke – "I insisted that slop they were passing as food was better used as wallpaper paste."
Mai sighed in antipathy, "What do you want Azula?"
"Tell me where he is, Mai," Azula questioned calmly with a silky smoothness that suddenly seemed sickening. "Tell me, and I'll let you go."
Mai kept her dignity and remained silent – even if she did know where Zuko and the Avatar had disappeared to, there was no way in Agni's name that she would tell Azula – despite the fact that her fingers itched for her trusty blades that she knew were not in their usual holsters along her forearms and thighs.
"You and I both know that I will find him," Azula said at length as she rounded into her line of sight. She knelt down, so that she was at eye level, "It's only a matter of time."
Mai stilled her thoughts and kept her eyes fixated straight ahead, focused on nothing in particular – certainly not the deceitful eyes in front of her. "If you know that you'll find him, why do you keep asking me where he is?" she stated casually.
Azula stood up, her short stature still managing to seem menacing and towering, "I will find him and I will kill him." Her voice had started to rise uncharacteristically and her eyes were flashing dangerously.
Mai felt a twitch and then she was smiling despite her situation, "The Fire Lord has charged you with his disappearance," she said in her usual monotonous fashion. "It's your fault Zuko was able to get out alive. How does it feel to be banished from the throne with your honor depending on someone's capture?"
Suddenly, she was knocked backwards by the sting of the back of Azula's hand across her cheek. She glared through fallen bangs, her face betraying no emotion as she answered, "You'll never find him Azula. It's over." She paused as the door to her cell opened and a guard poked his head through the door. Turning her cold eyes back on the young woman she had once considered a friend and a great leader, Mai snarled, "You lost."
Azula let out a shaky breath riddled with anger.
"Everything alright in her Princess?" the guard asked hesitantly and with much respect. "We heard a noise."
Azula grabbed at the front of Mai's shirt, pulling her defiantly to her feet. "I will find him," Azula growled low through clenched teeth, her face only inches from the end of Mai's nose. "And when I do, I will tell him that you led me straight to him."
Mai breathed calmly, the faint red mark on her face turning darker and bluer by the second. She clenched her jaw and met Azula's glare with equal vigor, "You're at the end of your rope Azula. You're desperate, and you and I both know that leads to failure."
Azula roared in anger and shot a ball of blue flames at the adjacent wall before throwing Mai back to the ground. Mai grunted in pain as Azula closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Once she reopened them, she seemed to have regained the calm dangerous demeanor that had always suited her.
The guard at the door shifted uncomfortably as Azula made her departure. "It was nice talking to you Mai," she said in a sickening light voice laced with sarcasm. "Maybe when I find Zuzu we can all have a big party to celebrate my commencement to the throne." She paused to laugh, "And to think… Father was seriously thinking of having old Zuzu as his heir, what a shame that he'll have to die in an Agni Kai instead…"
Aang groaned into his pillow, his limbs feeling twice their usual weight as they hung limply against his mattress. As the afternoon breeze blew lazily through his open window, "exhausted" just didn't seem the right word to describe how he felt. No… "exhausted" had come and gone long ago… Now, he felt completely and utterly drained…
Zuko's never-ending training sessions were starting to wear on him, and it seemed a daily occurrence that right about this time he would crash into bed and not move until Katara came by around sunset to let him know she had finished dinner.
Not that he didn't believe the training was anything but necessary…
With Sozin's Comet drawing nearer with each passing sunset, he felt the ensuing pressures of his duty to defeat the Fire Lord more and more. Not too unlike the days leading up to the Day of Black Sun, he found his nights lasting longer than they previously had as he spent most of his waking moments anticipating the battle that loomed ahead.
One thing, however, was very different from their last invasion force… This time around he felt confident. This time around he knew he wouldn't fail. This time around it was either victory or demise. With his friends by his side he knew he wasn't alone…
Aang was startled from his thoughts by a hesitant knock on his bedroom door. He paused before answering – the knock had been so quiet he wasn't totally sure that he had actually heard it – but when it was accompanied by another knock equally as hesitant but not quite as soft, he called from his bed, "It's open!"
The door creaked on its hinges and within seconds the sweet scent of jasmine reached him.
"Hey Katara," he greeted warmly, his face still buried in his pillow.
"Hey Aang," she answered quietly. "I hope I didn't wake you."
"I was only resting," he replied as he felt the edge of bed deepen, assuming that she'd taken a seat along the side of it. He glanced over his shoulder at her. She looked worried and somewhat nervous. "You okay?"
She smiled, her features lighting up instantly as she directed her gaze towards his, "I'm fine. I just wanted to check on you."
He felt himself grinning as he answered, "I thought you didn't care if I got blown to bits."
"I don't. But Sokka insists that you have to end the war first…" she teased playfully.
He laughed as he moved to sit up behind her, "Oh, is that all?"
She smiled at him warmly, and he returned the action, "So what's on your mind?"
"What do you mean?" she asked calmly.
"You want to ask me something, I can tell by the look in your eyes," he answered nonchalantly. "So I'll ask again, what's on your mind?"
Katara chuckled, amazed and somewhat horrified at his ability to read her so well. "Well… I wanted to talk to you about something."
Aang felt his pulse quicken as a knot slowly formed in his stomach that hadn't been there only seconds before. "Really?" he asked with more nervousness in his voice than he was comfortable with, "What about?"
"Well…" she paused, and – wait… was that a blush he saw creeping across her cheeks? – turned her attention to her knees, "…actually there's a few things I wanted to talk to you about."
He shifted his weight and threw his legs around the side of the bed so that he was sitting beside her and not behind her anymore. "You can talk to me about anything Katara," he heard himself saying – since when did he get so calm and confident? – as he was met with a small smile from her.
He smiled back as her expression changed to one of subtle disgust. Puzzled, he opened his mouth to ask her what was wrong. He was cut off by her laughter.
"Aang, you're a mess!"
In the sunlight he was now sitting in, he suddenly realized that he was still covered in dried sweat and ash and did, in fact, look like a mess. He glanced down at his dirt stained hands, "I uh… haven't gotten a chance to take a bath yet…"
"Obviously!" She laughed lightly as she acknowledged this by swiping a finger across his bare chest, leaving a line of pale skin in its wake among the ash and soot. "Alright then," she started as she regained her composure, "I have a proposition for you."
"I still need to head to the river along the mesa top to get some water for tonight's stew," she said, her voice still light with laughter. "Why don't you go with me? We can talk along the way and maybe we could do some bending to get you cleaned up!"
He smiled sadly, "I'd love to Katara. But Zuko wants me to do some Firebending forms before dinner."
"But you've been training with him all day long," she argued with a slight edge of hurt in her voice. "Don't you think you need to work on your other disciplines?"
The argument was futile, because she knew as well as he that he'd mastered her element months ago. But, what she didn't know was how much Aang had missed his lessons with his favorite sifu…
"What if I meet you there?" he answered suddenly. "I'll just tell Zuko I can only train for an hour, and then I'll head to the river as soon as I'm done!"
She paused to entertain the idea, "I guess that would work…"
"Great!" Aang responded enthusiastically. "Then I'll see you at the river in an hour!"
Katara pondered this for a moment, and then smiled as she stood up from the bed and headed towards the door. "Don't be late," she warned with a smile.
"I won't! I'll see you in an hour!" Aang called after her as she closed the door behind her, leaving him once again alone in his bedroom.
Zuko, as usual, was irritated.
The sun was sinking lower and lower and the Avatar still hadn't gotten the hang of the newest form he was trying to teach him. To top it off, their time had been cut short with the kid's incessant pestering that he "needed a break" and he "had other bending exercises to do."
He sighed in exasperation as another failed attempt ended in a ball of smoke.
"Are you even paying attention to what you're doing?" Zuko erupted. "This isn't even a difficult form!"
"Sorry Zuko," Aang countered as he took a seat next to his Sifu, rubbing at the soot on his hands. "I guess I'm a little distracted."
"Yeah, Katara said she wants to talk to me about something…" Aang answered. "I don't know if that's a good thing. Sokka says that's usually bad…"
Zuko rolled his eyes, he knew where this was going…
Desperate to change the conversation from the Avatar's girl troubles, he stood up to demonstrate how the form was supposed to look. "You're putting too much thought into it, just go with what feels natural," he said as he moved through the motions and ended with a long stream of fire emitting from his finger tips.
Aang sighed, apparently he had taken Zuko's advice out of context. "But what if she doesn't feel that way about me?"
Zuko paused, and then realizing where the Avatar's train of thought had taken him, he sighed in resignation and took his seat back next to his bald comrade. "It doesn't get any easier…" he said suddenly, startling Aang from his thoughts.
Zuko was uncomfortable to say the least, and he shifted slightly on his haunches as he felt his face heat up. "They're so moody and angry, and then the next minute they act human again. It's infuriating what it does to you… what they do to you…" Zuko shook his head suddenly, as if shaking away his thoughts. "Sometimes you're better off without them."
Aang paused with a thoughtful look in his eyes, "You're talking about that knife throwing girl…" he stated simply. "You miss her?"
Zuko closed his eyes, the cool blue hues he'd been thinking of melting to golden amber. "Yeah…" he answered at length. "I guess I do."
Aang smiled sadly. It was the first time he could think of that Zuko had really opened up to any of them. He put a reassuring hand on the Prince's shoulder as Zuko reopened his eyes, "I bet she misses you too…"
Zuko paused, thinking back to the feeling of Mai's rich black hair in his fingers and his mouth on hers. He shuddered and released a breath he'd been holding for some unknown reason, "Mai isn't the type to miss anything. She isn't the type to feel anything or do anything. She doesn't know what she stands for anymore." He sighed, loosing himself in his own voiced thoughts, "She was always different from the other girls when we were kids. She didn't care what other people thought of her, she was always just herself."
Aang remained silent, not sure what type of input he should make. This was the most he'd heard Zuko talk since he'd joined them a month ago, so he thought it best to just sit and listen.
"She was the first person I really trusted besides my uncle… Now she doesn't know who she is anymore…" Zuko cringed, "She's just another one of my sister's puppets."
"Maybe she just needs the chance to prove herself," Aang argued softly.
Zuko shook his head, keeping his eyes on his hands, "Mai's different. She isn't like that Watertribe friend of yours…"
"What do you mean?" Aang asked, somewhat taken back.
"I mean… she doesn't really stand up for anything," Zuko answered somewhat angrily. "She doesn't stand up for herself. She wouldn't stand up for me like the Watertribe girl stands up for you."
"She has a name…" Aang muttered quietly.
"I said she has a name," Aang repeated. "Katara… Katara has a name, she isn't that Watertribe girl."
Zuko shook his head, "Whatever… Look, you're missing the point. Mai and me…" he sighed as he went to stand up, "I don't think there is a Mai and me anymore…"
"Oh…" Aang realized.
"She'll never forgive me for leaving her like that," Zuko said sadly. "It's better that we go our separate ways."
Aang nodded thoughtfully still unsure of what to say.
Zuko glanced at the sky, noting the change in color and the approaching sunset. "I guess you'd better get going," he said suddenly. "Katara's probably waiting." It felt weird saying the girl's name in casual conversation, but he liked it in a strange sort of way. It made him feel more like a part of the group…
"Yeah…" Aang said as he started towards the path that led up the cliff-face to the mesa above. "I'll see you later Zuko…" he said nervously in departure. Judging by the sun, he'd at least get a few minutes to clean himself up before Katara was due to meet him. Perhaps he could use the time to gather his thoughts…
"Hey…" Zuko said suddenly.
Aang stopped at the path's edge, and turned back towards the sound of Zuko's voice, "What?"
"It won't be a bad thing."
Aang frowned, "What do you mean?"
"She wants to talk to you… But it won't be a bad thing." Zuko answered matter-of-factly.
"How do you know?"
Zuko shrugged his shoulders as he turned towards the Air Temple, "Call it a hunch."
Aang stood and watched him climb the steps out of the courtyard. There was something different in the way he was holding his shoulders. He looked… disappointed…
'Maybe he's just tired…' Aang reasoned to himself as he slowly started up the path, a familiar feeling churning once again in the pit of his stomach.
A/N: So… A new character was introduced! Yeah! I guess I did say in the summary this would also be a Mai x Zuko fic as well as Katara x Aang and Katara x Zuko. Plot thickens, eh? Hopefully I'll get the next chapter out sooner than it took me to get this one down! I plan on it featuring some Katara and Zuko time as well as Katara and Aang!