A/n: Yay, Avatarly postings! I've actually been waiting for a while to be able to post this, because I wrote it for a Maiko fic exchange a few weeks ago. It was recently posted on the LJ comm "kindoflikeyou" and here it is!
The recipient wanted "apocafic", and since desolation and despair are my specialties, I had a lot of fun with this. However, I thougt it was equally as important to remind the reader that Mai and Zuko are hopelessly in love and are happy, despite the terror of their situation.
Disclaimer: I don't even own the prompt D:
The New War
By Invaderk, written for boosette
"We are not retreating. We are advancing in another direction." - General Douglas MacArthur
Gray falls on the Fire Nation Capital's city streets; dismal, engulfed in a downpour. It seems to always be raining here now—some say it is the spirits taking pity on those left behind, but most find the change in weather little more than a manifestation of the foreboding, hopeless sense of nothing. The Avatar has run off to the Earth Kingdom to keep the problem from crossing borders, leaving behind all those who weren't deemed healthy enough to leave on the last ship. Those unlucky people and the few brave enough to stay with them in hopes of salvation are quarantined here like prisoners to their own homes. The capital, which once was the center of cultural and business life, now stands vacant, save for those who dare to venture into the street. A ghost town.
Sometimes, if you listen hard enough as you lay awake at night, curled up in your bathhouse with your blanket clenched about your shoulders, you can hear the lost souls of the Fire Nation as they scream for mercy.
One solitary man, hunched against the rain with his fingers clasped tightly around the handle of his bag, makes his way down the cobblestone as fast as his wounded leg can carry him. Blinking away the rainfall, he sets his eyes upon the small, boarded-up house that looms up ahead in the semi-darkness. His home, where he resides alone on the meager scraps of food purchased from the only aid center left in the Fire Nation, has not yet been condemned, nor he quarantined within it. Then again, it will probably never be, even long after the parasite consumes the remainder of his left foot. The man sighs and pulls his traveling cloak tighter about him, wondering what he will do once he is safely locked up in his house.
A moment later, he is begging for his life.
The pair flies down from the low rooftop like shadows, silent and stealthy, clad in black from head to toe. Before the man has a chance to shout—out of habit, because even in his desperation and panic he knows that nobody he sees on the streets will help him—he has been pressed firmly against the wall and held at knifepoint. The two figures might be ghosts, if only he could not see the bottoms of their faces from the dim light. Both are frowning, the grip that holds the man's shoulder to the wall never fading.
"What do you think?" asks the first voice. It's tone is low, grave.
The second figure gives a very human shrug and leans in closer so that the man can see the delicate curve of its lips tilt in a frown. "Too far gone, just like the others. Not a chance." It pauses before giving the man a sharp prod in the middle with one pointed finger. "How much have you got on you, old man?"
Cringing under the knifepoint, the man can only manage a strangled, "N-nothing! I have nothing. Search my pockets if you like."
"We don't want your money, we want your parasite," the lower of the two voices explains. "How much have you got?"
None of this makes any sense. As far as he is concerned, he is being held at knifepoint and asked to hand over something he does not want anything to do with. A strange equation indeed. He furrows his brows at the two supposed muggers.
"A-a leg's worth, I guess. Spreading up from my left foot. I—it musta' come from the river. You know how it's in the water." Even in the rain and dark, the man makes a valiant attempt at seeing his captor's faces. The strained effort is in vain, though, for both figures have pulled their hoods over their eyes and he can see little more than their chins. "I…I don't suppose I have very long."
The grip, to his surprise, lessens on his shoulder, the knife edging away from his adam's apple. "No, I suppose not. Give him one," the low voice demands with a jerk of his head.
"How about a 'please'?" comes the amused, distinctly female response.
The first figure sighs in exasperation. "Come on, we haven't got all day here. Just give him one before I bleed to death."
"Alright, hold your ostrich-horses already. Gee, you'd think after all this time we'd at least be well-mannered with each other…"
The man stares as the second figure reaches into a sack that he had not previously noticed and pulls from within another similar bag. Draw-string, black, and full of something that he can not even fathom whilst being stuck in this uncomfortable position. His leg aches beneath him. Sometimes he wonders if he can actually feel the microscopic, razorblade teeth gnawing away at his flesh, but even in his wildest dreams he knows that this is not so. The second figure presses the bag against the man's chest as the first relents its grip and backs off, as if to give them all a breath of fresh air. Though now free, the man finds that he can barely move. His hands reach up and receive the bag, holding it tightly against his chest as one might protect an infant from danger.
"Wh—who are you?" As simple as it sounds coming from his quivering mouth, it is the very most he can manage. He doesn't care what the bag holds at the moment; it could be an explosive device for all he cares, but his instincts are telling him to cling to it for dear life and he does.
The shadow cast upon the figure's face does not hide the small, sad smile. "We're your allies."
And just like that, the first figure nods to the second and they are gone again, the taller one boosting the second with a small grunt so that the second figure can jump onto the low rooftop. A split-second later, the first figure joins its comrade. Before the man, who is too mesmerized by the fluidity—almost inhuman speed—of their dancelike motions, can open his mouth to speak, he is alone once more in the pouring rain with his raggedy breath as the only human sound. Baffled, he lowers the bag from his chest and pulls the drawstring apart to examine what has been delivered to him, only to disbelieve what he sees.
A bag full of food and water skins, swollen almost to bursting point. A bottle of what looks like some sort of medicine. The man closes his eyes and heaves a sigh.
Mai is on the verge of outright laughing as they duck under the low curtain that separates one barren alley from the next. The sound is distinct even with her hand over her mouth to stifle the giggle, and Zuko isn't sure what's more surreal—the fact that it's Mai who's giggling behind him or that the weather is foul and they've been dancing on death's doorway for two months and yet she's still making that ever so endearing sound behind him. He figures that it's partly a hormonal thing, since they haven't had very much to laugh about otherwise, but the sound is still a welcome alternative to the lonely thrum of rain and thunder.
Zuko shoots a quick glance over his shoulder at his hooded wife as he fumbles with the lock on the peeling door. Save for the pair of them, there is not a single soul, animal nor human, out in this alley. In a few hours a number of people will make their way over, but it's too early to be drinking yet, even for these people. They've taken cover for the last few weeks beneath the only open bar left in the country, where they can still get a warm meal from time to time without being discovered by the patrons. Sometimes the bartender ambles down the stairs to chat about the goings-on outside the quarantine, but mostly he leaves them be. Zuko is grateful for this, if nothing else.
"What's so funny?" he asks. His cold fingers finally catch the lock and he forces the small door open with his shoulder.
Mai withdraws her hand from her mouth to reveal a slight smirk. "I love doing the fake-mugging thing—did you see that guy's face when we jumped off the roof? He thought he was going to die right there."
"Yeah, well, sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to just get it over with… like that," he replies. On that somber note, the pair slips through the doorway and down a flight of darkened stairs, feeling along the walls for direction and support.
"Of course it would be easier," she replies, and even though he can't see her in the dark, he knows that her rare smile has faded. Her breath tickles somewhere around the back of his neck when she speaks, making him feel that momentary flush that he's never quite grown out of, even after the several years of their marriage. When they arrive at the second door, Zuko unlocks this one too and forces it open with a little more difficulty. "If we did just kill everyone we saw, then they might actually have an actual reason for trying to hunt us down, but I guess we've got to try anyway."
Casting a look about the dimly-lit basement, Zuko pulls the dripping hood away from his head and sighs as Mai closes the door behind them. The only word that can truly describe their living space is "desperate". The few items that they had brought with them from the palace—when they'd supposedly fled the Fire Nation, after the evacuation had been declared—sit in two knapsacks by the door. Save for these, the room is little more than an abandoned bar area and an underground storage closet. The barstools and tables are piled with boxes and dust, the mattress on the floor a makeshift bed with a single red blanket and two lumpy pillows. It is on this supposed bed that Mai seats herself with a soft sigh, the bag in which they've carried the relief kit propped between her parted knees. Zuko watches as she sticks her hand in the bag and pulls out the fruits of their mission: medical wrap, a bottle of disinfectant, a water skin. They'd been a wrench to find, but nothing that looting an abandoned pharmacy hadn't been able to cure.
His voice is heavy with an unspoken sigh, brows furrowed. "Yes."
In a fluid motion he's deposited his cloak beside hers across the back of a rickety chair and is seating himself down beside her. The mattress smells like mould and creaks with their combined weight, but neither makes a comment on the sad furnishings. There's nothing about their new life that hasn't already been said more than enough—times are hard, the world as they know it is falling to shambles around them, they are the only two people left in the capitol who have managed to avoid the killer sweeping across the half-empty nation. And yet, somehow, as they sit facing one another, he frowning and she rolling up the gray sleeves of her civilian guise, there is a warmth between them that comes only from a happy couple. Struggling and fighting to bring aid to their people without being killed, yes, but somewhat happy all the same.
Despite their physical tiredness and being continuously hunted down for "retreating" hanging over their heads, Mai is positively radiant. This frightens and amazes Zuko.
She demands that he show her his arm, and as he rolls the cuff of his sleeve back he looks into her face and sees the dark circles below her eyes. How long have they been there, evading his watchful eye? He must have them too, Zuko muses; when you're only getting three to four hours of sleep a night—sleep pierced by the rowdy people still strong enough to limp to the bar a floor above—it's natural to show the signs.
"You look terrible, Mai."
Her eyes meet his for a moment as her chilled fingertips begin to unwind the wrapping along his forearm. "Your charming nature never ceases to amaze me, Zuko," she deadpans, jerking her head to clear her damp hair from her eyes.
Instead of making him smirk, however, his frown only deepens. Zuko, holding in an exasperated exhale, proclaims, "I'm serious, Mai. We really need to start taking better care of you, especially since you've got the two of you to worry about instead of just yourself."
And there it is. The cause for his deepmost concerns resides not within his own safety or even Mai's safety, but the safety of Mai and the life growing inside of her. If only they had known before, perhaps she would have left with the last of them—
"I guess we should have thought about that before we decided to stay behind."
This time Zuko really does groan on her behalf, rolling his eyes as to make a tiny smile twitch in the corner of her mouth. Often times he wonders if she can really read his mind, and this is no exception. Not that he's particularly hard to read, or that he minds. She's right in her comment, he knows. They could leave, technically, if they send to Aang for help, but when Mai had first revealed to him that her queasiness was not from his cooking after all, they had ultimately decided that they needed to stay until doing so was no longer an option. Either they are the only ones left alive or Mai goes into labor, whichever comes first. And, frankly, Zuko isn't too thrilled with either scenario, but it's the only way. She won't leave him and he can't do it all without her. They've braved the danger for so long, and while the issue continues to spread unabated, they like to think that they've at least made the lost citizens of his country more peaceful in their death—or, at least the ones who aren't looking to hang them for "bringing this plague upon the great Fire Nation!"
Finally the last of the dressings fall away from Zuko's forearm, only to reveal an ugly gash running jagged across the now-bare skin. The sight makes his stomach clench slightly.
"Wow, remind me never to have you fix any more doors," she teases. Her voice is light despite the darkness of their surroundings.
He gives a reluctant, proud glare in her direction. "I didn't know it was going to come apart on me like that—I would have been more careful if I'd known it was going to cut me open."
Zuko winces as she runs her finger along the outskirts of the wound, where the skin is pink yet still closed. Though it's already begun to clot, one part responds less-than-kindly to her gentle touch and cracks open once more. Mai gives a low whistle.
"We're lucky this hasn't gotten infected," she says, and the very thought scares him.
Because this parasite is a death wish. Starting first in the rivers, the man-induced attack quickly spread into the swimming water, and finally into the drinking water. If he so much as washes his hands he's at risk for dying—or worse, passing it off to Mai and their unborn child before he realizes he's infected. Before all of this, a cut would have been the least of his problems, but now it must take the forefront of his attentions.
The haunting idea in mind, he dips into a thoughtful silence as Mai begins her work. She pops the cork off the bottle with her thumb whilst folding a scrap of cloth into a workable size. After dousing the cloth, she goes about cleaning his wound with the casual air of one doing the dishes. If the pain had been bad before, the cleaning only makes it worse; first there's a sensation of a sharp sting that runs all along the gash, followed by a bubbling sort of feeling and finally a long, slow burn. A small gasp escapes from his mouth, but the second Mai raises her eyes to his face Zuko has evened out again. She's gentle and almost sweet in her motions. He loves her for that, that she's still the same Mai even with plague and death all around them. The very idea that some think they've—that Mai, who has worked beside he and the Avatar for so long to bring the country to peace and honor—given up on them, or brought this upon them in the first place, is enough to set him ablaze with anger.
Zuko's eyes shift over to the floor, where he'd deposited a brief letter from Aang just a few hours previous. He hadn't been expecting good news, but the statistics he had been faced with are devastating all the same. It seems that there is almost nothing left to the remainder of the Fire Nation, and all those who managed to escape—most of the population, according to Aang, but not nearly all of it—have begun to start new lives away from this new war. The number of dead is staggering, the infected even moreso. He can barely fathom the fact that he and Mai have managed to deliver aid to less than a third of the nation's wounded in their months here.
There's a scuffling upstairs that lets them know the patrons have arrived for their nightly binge. Mai and Zuko sit in almost complete silence until she finally sets aside the cleaning materials and begins to wrap the freshly-medicated wound.
"I wonder how many are left for tonight."
The silence that follows is uneasy, not because of the question but because they both already know the answer.
"Not too many, I would assume," Mai responds with only the faintest touch of interest, twisting the white dressing slowly around the padded wound.
"At least we're doing the best we can," says Zuko as he arches his back to the sound of faint popping noises up and down his spine. With a small groan of contentedness at the stretch, he scratches the side of his damp head with his free hand and peers tiredly at his wife. "A year ago, you would have loved the idea of dressing up incognito and running around in secret, helping people. Now it just seems so… depressing, I guess."
"Dark and edgy isn't all it's cracked up to be," Mai says with resignation in her voice and exhaustion in the set of her shoulders. She ties off the ends of his wrap and sits back.
"Coming from you, that really means something."
"It might help if we didn't have an army of parasite-infected civilians after our blood."
"You're right, but we do, and there's nothing we can do to change their minds. If they don't want to believe this wasn't our fault, then—"
The rest of Zuko's sentence is cut abruptly short when the sound of footfalls on the staircase causes them both to scramble to their feet. Pulling his sleeve down over his newly-bandaged arm, the Fire Lord strides briskly to the doorway and stops just short of it. When he looks back, he can already see the silvery glint of a throwing knife poised between Mai's fingertips, ready to strike. With one nod to her, he turns his head to the door.
To their immense relief, however, the voice is a familiar one. The bartender's words are rushed and wheezy, but far more welcome than those of a stranger.
"Open up in there!"
Zuko obliges after a split second, twisting the doorknob (now fixed, nearly at the cost of his arm) so that the door opens just enough to spill a sliver of light over the barman's face. The change from the pitch-black of the staircase sends the man into a frenzy of blinking, which stops him only for a moment when Zuko finally opens the door to allow him entry into their meager basement.
Panting from the effort of walking all the way downstairs, the barman is bent over double, clasping at his knees. The distinct rawness of the parasite's work is momentarily visible to Zuko, until the man's shirt shifts over the small of his back and hides the skin.
"What's the matter?"
"There's a—a small band of 'em. People who're after you. And they know you're here—I guess they saw the provisions you gave some man earlier and he told 'em where you went, and they're on their way—"
Zuko doesn't answer. Instead, turning around to see that Mai's eyebrows are slowly rising into her hairline, he gives her the contemplative look that they both know all too well. There is always an option when it comes to relocation. They can spend the next few nights in some alley somewhere until they find another place to settle, or they can stand their ground.
Despite the fact that Zuko well knows that the latter is hardly an option, he still asks the kindly barman just how many they can expect to see at their doorstep.
"Four. Five at the most."
Not as bad as he would have thought. Zuko shoots Mai an indicative glance, to which she responds with a terse jerk of her head.
"Not this time," she says with a small sigh. "We could beat them if we really wanted, but it's not worth the risk of infection, or losing—" Her eyes dart to the staring barman in a calculating fashion, "—the delivery. And what if these five are just a test? We don't know how many people know who we are, or if they even know—they could just be looking for money or relief supplies."
Defeated, Zuko feels his shoulders slump, the fabric of his peasant clothes shifting with his scant weight. "You're right; I guess we have no choice. Thank you, Chao," he adds to the man in the doorway.
The barman bows deeply, his hands clasped together in a respectful gesture Zuko hasn't seen in a very, very long time. Bowing seems to bring him some pain, for he gives a small groan as his back curves. From where he stands, neither Zuko nor Mai can see the flash of diseased flesh as it becomes momentarily visible again. "It has been an honor to serve the Fire Lord and Lady. I shall hold the intruders off as long as I can manage."
"Your kindness will be repaid when all has been restored to normal."
At this comment, the man spares Zuko an ironic, wry smile. "My Lord, living to see my nation restored would be a gift in itself." Then he is gone, in a twirl far quicker than his state would seem to allow, up the doorway and into the dark of the staircase.
Zuko feels the cold doorknob beneath his lingering fingers, the gentle throb of his forearm in its new wrapping. Letting out a slow breath, he allows the door to close and he locks it, though doing so is unnecessary. They won't be there much longer than five minutes. Mai's hand comes to rest on his shoulder.
"Come on, Zuko."
When he turns, her arms are around his midsection, not hugging but rather holding him there on the death's doorstep. Nothing is for certain anymore, not even that they will make it through the night. At first Zuko feels his back go rigid, but a moment later he succumbs to her hold—to Mai herself, in all her simply-clad wonder. His hands run upward along her arms, her chin tucking into that spot on his shoulder where she feels most comfortable. Once upon a time she may have smelled like roses or some sort of wealthy combination of spices, and yet he finds nothing more comforting than the simply clean, familiar scent he is greeted with now. Just Mai, nothing more or less.
"Where do you want to go?" she asks, her breath tickling along the back of his neck.
He squeezes her shoulders. He can feel her swollen abdomen pressing into his own stomach and he loves the feel of it, the idea of the two (well, the three) of them together, facing the odds despite the slim chances. It's haunting. Poignant.
"I don't care," he says. "As long as you're with me, I don't care where we go."
Mai gives a quiet chuckle into the joint of his shoulder. "I guess you could say the feeling is mutual, then."
She pulls away after a few long seconds of rain-filled quiet, cups the sides of his face in her palms to peer into his eyes, brushing a lock of tousled hair from his brow. "Let's get out of here—this place makes me feel anxious, and that's really saying something."
"You've got that right."
Zuko, pressing his lips to her forehead before turning to where their still-damp cloaks are draped over the chair, takes up his own and throws it over his shoulders in a swift motion. The fabric is the sort of cold and wet that can send a chill down the spine, and it does. Beside him, Mai experiences a similar feeling as she dons herself in black once more. He takes a few steps to cross the cramped room, then bends to pick up their knapsacks in either hand. As an afterthought, he scoops the open letter from the floor and pockets it wordlessly.
"Ready?" he says, passing one of the drawstring bags into her outstretched hands.
"Please, Zuko," she drawls in a voice that is just so Mai that it makes his heart melt a little, "you know I'm always up for a little mischief. Have you got the clean water?"
"Good. Now let's go."
With one last reassuring, almost ironic smile, Mai turns and leads the way from the gray basement. Zuko doesn't look back, save to double-check that they have everything they'll need for the nights to come, before they've disappeared into the darkness of the stairwell.
As long as they play it smart, they will be fine. Zuko hopes this with every fiber of his being, and even when the darkest moments take away this hope, the gentle touch of her hand is enough to stoke the belief right back into his heart. Carefully, he closes the door, one hand clinging to the waist of Mai's tunic to keep them together in the dark. Tonight they will not retreat, not from those who feel senseless anger towards them, nor from the parasite itself. So long as they are doing the job they long ago decided is the only choice, they are only advancing in another direction.
The door sticks at first, finally closing with a resounding thud that raises dust from the floor. A long grumble of thunder trembles the moth-eaten mattress, and then the room is still. It is the end of the world, it seems, and yet only the beginning of a new war.
A/n: And that's the way it ends, huzzah! I'm immensely proud of this, because if you compare it to some things I wrote even just last year... it's far superior both in style and context. But anyway, criticism is always welcome, though not necessarily encouraged on this, since it's based on a specific prompt.
Thanks so much for reading!