The Walk [Avatar]

They'd expect her to wait for the morning, which was why she slipped out hours before dawn, early enough in the morning that it still counted as yesterday for the more dedicated night owls. Her pack was light, because she didn't bring much with her on the trip, because she hadn't expected to be doing any of this when they'd set out from the Fire Nation on their Earth Kingdom Victory Lap; of course they'd all offered her one thing or another, little burdens to help ease her journey, and she'd accepted them all politely and left them all in a pile at the foot of her bed. This was something she had to do alone.

She wove her way through the streets and alleys, deliberately losing her way even as she kept her westward bearing. If she couldn't retrace her steps, no amount of having second thoughts could get her back to where she'd started. In the dark, lit only by lanterns and the occasional dim streetlamp, all the houses began to look the same.

She'd been here before, of course, once by train and once by sky bison, and as such thought she had a concept of just how large Ba Sing Se really was. But she could see the wall looming ahead in the distance -- only the inner wall, even, not the great outer wall, that was miles farther on -- and no matter how many steps she took, it never seemed to move an inch closer.

Just let me walk home, she'd said, and stood her ground through all his arguments about how it wasn't going to be like this forever, because she knew that if she stayed, it would be. What she'd said was I don't want to wind up being my mother, and what she hadn't said was and I don't want to wind up being your mother either, because she knew he'd take it the wrong way and think she was comparing him to his father, which was untrue. He was as unlike his father as a person could be and still be breathing, and she knew that he wasn't even capable of that kind of controlling violence, let alone liable to use it against her.

But after the twenty-seventh time she'd been asked about wedding plans by complete strangers, she'd stopped counting and started actually contemplating stabbing them. After the thirty-eighth, she'd nearly had a panic attack in public. After the fiftieth, she'd stopped counting as an act of sheer self-preservation.

She turned the corner into a public square, which might have been the one she and Zuko had come to on their night out through Ba Sing Se, but the near-dark erased any identifying features that might have made it different from any other place in the city, until it could have been anywhere at all. The fountain was quiet, its stone fixtures plugged for the evening, and on the still water in its basin floated a single tattered paper lantern, an abandoned ship slowly drifting across the tiny ocean beneath it. She reached in and fished it out, tossing it onto a small garbage pile heaped up against one of the nearby buildings. A parting gift: leaving the world a better place than she'd found it.

The single straw that had finally broken the camel's back had been an off-handed comment from a servant girl (and Mai found herself thinking of her as a 'girl', even though she'd likely been no younger than Mai herself, and certainly no younger than Katara or Toph) about how lovely it would be to be the Fire Lord's wife, and to have nothing to worry about doing at all. The girl hadn't meant anything by it, of course, and so Mai had waited politely until she'd left the room and shut the door behind her to break down sobbing, pounding her fists into the mattress until she felt sure she'd punched a hole all the way to the jade frame beneath. No, the Fire Lord's wife wouldn't have a thing to worry about in the world; she'd sit prettily and smile kindly and give her husband's arm a comforting pat when the weight of his very important job just got to be too much for him, and perhaps, if she were feeling adventurous, silently host a state dinner, and of course one day bear and ride herd over his children.

I'd never stop you from doing anything, he had of course reassured her when she'd explained herself with clenched fists, and she didn't know if she'd ever quite made him understand that it didn't matter what he would or wouldn't do, it was what everyone else expected. There was already a deeply entrenched understandng of what the Fire Lord's wife should be, a pair of pre-planned shoes just waiting for her to step into them. At the end of the day, she'd be little more than his accessory to the rest of the court, with her entire schedule revolving around where she was needed in his life.

What scared her most wasn't that he might go back on his promise to grant her all the autonomy she wanted; what scared her was that she didn't even know what she wanted that autonomy for. She had no idea at all what she'd do if actually left to her own devices. She'd spent the lion's share of her life being the perfect daughter, toiled a few months on a quest that was now entirely a moot point, and wound up out the other end supporting the arm of the boy everyone had always assumed she'd marry.

Ironically enough, the time she'd spent in prison had been the freest span of her entire life.

A sleepy dog-pigeon lifted its head as she walked by, and she scratched it behind its ear before it settled down again in a ball of fur and feathers, content to let her pass its nominal guard station uncommented-upon. Returned to her pocket, her hand clenched around a small stone necklace, a simple black chain of tightly interwoven hematite, which he'd bought for her at an earthbender's jewelry shop without her having to ask, because he'd seen it catch her eye and thought she'd look beautiful in it. He was so thoughtful like that, so loving and kind despite all his upbringing's efforts to break him the other direction. For all the things she'd left behind, this at least she'd brought.

Her light-soled shoes padded across the cobblestones quietly, whispering her disappearance as sheer will carried her forward into the unknown. The road to the Fire Nation's shores was almost unfathomably long, she knew, but she was young, and she had time. And he'd wait for her, or he wouldn't, and the idea that he wouldn't set a stone in the pit of her stomach -- but that decision was his to make, just like this was hers. As with so many journeys, the distance covered between them would eventually decide everything.

Every step was its own kind of victory, every inch taking her that much farther from the person everyone had told her she was and that much closer home.

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