Author's Note/Disclaimer: Zuko's manly man-pain and other related trademarks belong to Nickelodeon. Jaunty screen-name and devil-may-care skirting of the grey areas of copyright law belong to me. But I make no profit. You know the drill!
This story takes place shortly after Bitter Work.
Ty Lee's laughter rang through the glade where they'd parked their tank. She was pointing at Mai, and clapping her hands - no small feat, considering that she turns hand-stands on a tree branch at the same time.
"Honestly, Mai," Azula surveyed her 'friend' critically. Her cupid's-bow lips curved into a smirk. Ready, aim, fire. "I cannot understand what you have to complain about. It's almost enough to make me think you have Air Nomad blood."
Azula's nose wrinkled in disgust. And understandably so! Everyone knew that the Air Nomads had been rootless savages, who tried to hold back technological progress with their 'non-materialist' philosophies. What kind of pathetic civilization couldn't understand conquest or innovation?
... a dead one, obviously.
"I didn't say I wanted to deprive myself of decent clothing. I could just... do without this in particular," Mai looked down at the Earth Kingdom robes that Azula had so thoughtfully retrieved from the ranch they burned down two weeks ago, and scoffed. Scoffed! It was absolutely silly. Why, you'd think that Azula was asking Mai to wear her funeral robes! Ty Lee was so much more sensible about these things.
(Not that Azula herself would be caught dead in that hideous getup. Green was the color of vomit, of weakness, of leaves that burned. It was far below the station of a Princess of the Fire Nation.)
"But Mai, it's so pretty!" Ty Lee beamed from her treetop. Had she stopped flipping around back there? It was so hard to tell. Azula had once been given a pet monkey for her birthday; she'd immolated it on grounds of redundancy. "You're a Capricorn, and your Venus is in the fourth house. So turn that frown upside-down, Mai! Transcendence of material ill will lead you to spherical harmony with the sun. I wrote a letter to my guru at home and she completely agreed."
"You are absolutely right, Ty Lee!" Azula cooed, strolling over to pinch Mai's cheek. Like one of those washed-up spinster chaperones that used to follow her around. "Mai is i>soooooooooo /i> cute! Just like a porcelain doll!"
"I can't fit many knives under this bodice," Mai complained.
"You'll do fine!" Azula said, with an inspirational slap on the back. Royalty shoulbe inspirational. All the better to make commoner peons quake in despair when they realized that they could never measure up to their ideals. "It's absolute necessity! Our quarry travels deeper and deeper into this wretched nation of mud-worshipping barbarians. We need supplies if we're going to carry on. Of course, we should be able to drive into town and watch the dregs bow before their rightful ruler, but you know how tedious they can be about denying their betters."
Azula had confidence that Mai could secure what they needed. There were only two people on earth would could come even close to equaling Azula's competence and pedigree, and those two people happened to be standing right beside her. Sure, Mai and Ty Lee they could never be Azula, but perfection could not be expected of everyone.
"Right," Mai pivoted, and began the long stalk towards town. The other two girls watched her go.
Ty Lee turned to Azula, concerned.
"Her biorhythms are really compressed."
"You're right. She's totally on the rag," Azula smirked. She made a sharp gesture, and the tree Mai was walking by burst into flame.
"Mai, Ty Lee thinks you're being cold! Such a shame. Try to remember who you're dealing with, mmm? Friends should get along." Azula called, smarmily.
Mai walked on.
A set of bushes at the edge of the clearing rustled. Once. Twice. Three times. A wholly unnatural pattern. But the Princess and her handmaiden could not hear it over the crackle of their brand-new bonfire.
Mai was not amused.
That was not, in and of itself, unusual. Mai was hardly ever amused. She had been exposed to the very best of food, clothing, art, and literature. Doting parents had ensured that her tastes were developed by the age of six, refined by the age of eight, and jaded by the age of ten. There were few pleasures in this world that she had not experienced. There were even fewer that she had not tired of.
Still. Mai was even less amused than usual.
"Excuse me," she said, dryly, to a gawking passer-by. This town was small and full of bumpkins. All towns were small and full of bumpkins. This was an infallible rule of frontier living. "Can you point me towards the nearest blacksmith?"
Why Azula had insisted Mai wear this fancy, attention-grabbing dress when she was supposed to be in disguise as an ordinary Earth Kingdom citizen? Mai did not know. It was probably a misguided attempt not to wound Mai's pride as a Fire Nation noblewoman. It was probably a sick joke.
Knowing Azula, it was probably both.
"Blacksmith, missy?" the bumpkin said, vacantly. He was staring at the lacquered sticks in Mai's hair. Lovely. She knew that the war must produce shortages, but she hoped that none of her own people ever had cause to be fascinated by something so inane.
"Yes. The blacksmith. Do you know where the blacksmith is?" Mai repeated the question slowly. This staring had to stop. It was… it was… ugh. The dress was made of light summer linen. Its sleeves were so tight that she could only carry half the usual number of concealed knives and darts. A draft crept up her skirt, in order to remind her that the sheer material permitted no weapons on her legs either.
Agni. Mai might as well be naked.
"Over that way, tulip. You can't miss it. You tell him ol' Lin here sent ya, he'll set your brothers up right proper," The commoner sprouted a grin. He was missing teeth and his hands were caked with dirt. When Mai'd said she wanted to leave Omashu and find something interesting, people with no concept of hygiene weren't what she had in mind.
Mai shook her head, slowly. Lies were easiest to tell when they contained a grain of truth. That had been a part of her training.
"It's not for my brothers. It's for my master. Thank you."
The admirable thing about Azula was that - no matter how insufferable she could be about it - she was almost always right. The trio needed supplies. Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee were masters of their respective martial arts, but even they would be dead if they were caught this deep in Earth Kingdom territory. Ba Sing Se would not hesitate to send an entire platoon against them. It would be quite a coup to eliminate the only remaining heir to the Fire Throne.
So. Shopping in disguise it was. Azula couldn't be expected to do it because it would bring indignity to her station. Ty Lee couldn't be expected to it because she was Ty Lee.
It all came down to Mai.
Mai padded down the lane that the bumpkin had indicated, at a measured pace.
Said bumpkin leaned against a ramshackle stone fence, and watched her walk away. As soon as Mai was out of sight, he ducked into an alleyway, and followed.
The Earth Kingdom was true to its name. Here in the badlands, even the air was heavy with dust. Grit clogged his pores, and invaded the creases of his clothing. Some days it felt like the muck had thickened in his very blood.
It was an insidious way to implement a straightforward strategy: entomb and conquer. Uncle would call it evidence of the natural balance that existed even between the disparate elements so disparate as Earth and Air. Zuko called it grimy.
"Fine blades, son, but you've really banged them up. Are you here on leave? My cousin Bao says that fan warriors arrived to relieve the Green Watch last month."
"Mmm," Zuko inclined his head, keeping the brim of his hat low. Hard living at sea, and even harder living on the run, had aged the structure of his muscles and the texture of his skin. He looked too aged and too worn to fit in so far beyond the frontline.
Zuko needed to get this over with, and then get back to Uncle.
"You ever met one of those fan warriors? Under all that paint and armor, my cousin Bao says that they are mighty fine. I hear on Kyoshi…"
Zuko let the words wash over him, keeping his attention fixed on the broadswords that the blacksmith was repairing. Pointless chit-chat wasn't something that he could summon at will. No sparks of small-talk lurked under his skin, waiting to be bent into his father's little political miracles. It was one of his failings as a Prince.
"… and so I say to him, Bao, you are playing with an avalanche. Can you believe that he pinched…"
Fortunately, the blacksmith seemed more than content to recite months worth of news with minimal prompting. Most of his friends were gone at war. Zuko supposed it must be better than talking to the bottom of a beer mug, if it came to that. If you had to talk at all.
"…now, Fong down the road, she says that…."
In two years at sea, Zuko ran out of things to say. Silence had become a trusted companion. Maybe he'd grow to feel that way about filth as well.
Zuko could hear the sound of steps behind him. A shadow fell. He did not turn.
The babble stopped.
"Will you be long?" Asked a measured, female voice.
Zuko did not turn. Zuko did not turn. Zuko would not turn. Zuko was tensed for motion and ready for action. Zuko was locked in place.
"Ask the man with no name over there," the blacksmith said, kindly. He tilted the sword that he was working on, and the air was filled with a shower of sparks.
"No," Zuko said, curtly. He would not turn, he would not run, he would not draw suspicion with Uncle injured in a cave three miles from here and no weapons but the spark beneath the skin.
"I see. You use swords," Mai stood beside Zuko, but did not look at him. Azula's lackey wanted a standoff? So be it.
"I own swords." Zuko was noncomittal.
The silence thickened with tension; another old ally turned traitor. Even the blacksmith seemed to have caught on to the awkwardness. He'd stopped talking too.
"The sun is hot today," Mai referenced Zuko's firebending, obliquely. Zuko couldn't tell if she was at all affected by this little meeting.
"You could say that," Zuko replied. He hadn't known Azula'd brought her little friends with her. He hadn't anticipated that. And now look at him. One false move and he'd stick out in this town like a plume of magma. Soldiers from the last village were still looking for him, Uncle was not yet well enough for travel, and…
Damit it. Damn it all.
"I just did say that," Mai said. Her inflection was as deadpan as ever, but Zuko swore he could make out some sarcasm.
Zuko risked a quick glance at her, out of the corner of his eye. Uncle would tell him to evaluate the threat.
Sheer dress. Looked like an Earth Kingdom noblewoman. No physical cues that she was ready to draw weapon, but with a girl like Mai, that didn't mean a lot.
Zuko could think of thirteen different firebending moves that he could execute within five seconds of Mai making a wrong move. He kept his favorite in mind. She was just as wary as he was, if the slight curl of her fingertips was any consolation.
They were still as statuary, which mean that they might as well have had blades pointed at one another's throats.
"As you wish, Miss," said Zuko.
Come on. Why would the damn blacksmith not hurry up? A burly man like that should have no trouble hammering the dents out of Zuko's swords.
Mai could fire. Mai could fire and take out only one of Zuko's limbs, or puncture his lung. Mai could pull one of the pins out of her hair and impale Zuko's eye.
Zuko could throw himself at her right now, and overpower her with superior body mass, but that would look suspicious – it would all look suspicious.
"Thank you," Mai replied cautiously. "I'm here to replenish a store of knives for my friend in the army."
What was ithat/i supposed to mean? A threat? A coded message?
Zuko hated fighting battles that were only in his head. Battles should be taken to their proper, physical ground. Would Mai break first? Would he? She should be just as reluctant to pursue a confrontation here as Zuko. Female warriors were uncommon outside the Fire Nation. Azula wouldn't want to draw attention to her presence in or near this town.
What the hell was Azula playing at, pulling a stunt like this?
Zuko glowered into the distance. This was his life now. Someone he remembered as a twelve year-old who could never look him in the eye was now in striking distance of assassinating him. With the sun this high, it was as sweltering as Agni Kai.
Mai was still, apparently, reluctant to look him in the eye. That made two of them.
Slowly. Carefully. No sudden movements. They could get through this.
"The war impacts all of us, Miss."
"Yes," Mai allowed. Blank.
The silence stretched onward. Metal rasped against metal, and the broadsword glowed white-hot beneath the hammer-and-tong. Zuko could feel the sun setting behind him. It tugged at his soul.
"I…" Mai's fingers fidgeted; she longed for her darts, no doubt. "I'm here because…"
But Zuko wasn't to know why Mai had come there, for that was when their fragile standoff was shattered by the sound of an explosion to the north.
Zuko whirled to stare at the forest. Tongues of flame licked at the skyline, towering above the town's wall. Mai pinched the bridge of her nose, wincing.
"Oh, she didn't," Mai hissed under her breath.
"Not now," Zuko cursed to himself.
The two nobles started at each other, wide-eyed, until the blacksmith saw fit to speak once more.
"Take your swords, sonny! Take your swords and go!" Panic did not suit the blacksmith's large, scarred frame. He wore it awkwardly. Zuko's still-steaming broadsword was practically thrust into his hands. "It's the Fire Nation! The Fire Nation is coming! "
Boots pounded against the cobblestones; Earth Kingdom soldiers running to the town walls.
So much for stealth.