Hiding My Masked Affection
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender.
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Within hours the streets went quiet and dark, and the bold lights flashing in the air suddenly vanished. The bright stars glistened in a navy sky and the soft motion of the ocean crested in the far distance. Lanterns dimmed and the Spirit walked me home in silence, wrapping my burnt cloak like a shawl across my shoulders. Reassured by his presence, I hugged the fabric tighter to my chest, shuffling in the quiet night. Banners draped down cords strung across the street limply, swaying in a gentle breeze.
I exhaled, glancing between the shuttered shop-windows, darkened with heavy bars and curtains while shadows loomed down the wooden buildings. Trash littered the streets, red strips of fabric slowly easing downhill by the side of the road, discarded masks and party-wrappers laying tossed in sodden heaps, burn marks stretching across the grey-lit stone.
Glancing over my shoulder, I met the gaze of the Blue Spirit, who solemnly walked by my side, reserved with his hands suspended at his sides. I smiled briefly at him. "Is it usually this quiet?" I whispered.
He looked over towards me, silently nodding.
I shivered and looked back down the road. "And it's hard to believe that it's only the second day of celebration."
He huffed in silence, dipping his head in acknowledgement.
Guilt peaked inside me when I remembered what I had promised to tell the Spirit, and my throat tightened. I gazed back over towards him, halting to face his directly.
He gauged me expectantly, shoulders uneven in expectation.
I twisted my lips. "The Fire Lord invited me personally to Ember Island for the next three days," I admitted. "I didn't know about it until this morning, when I found him investigating the attack." I smiled. "He actually did it. The meeting wasn't a waste of time- he came through. Now they'll find the proof they need to prove that people are in danger. We won't be the only ones to know."
The Spirit stood still, unchanged. Finally, after a slow beat, he nodded once.
"So...I won't be here for three nights," I finished, raising an eyebrow at the thought. The Spirit cocked his head to the side, shoulders hunched as he crossed his arms.
"I don't know if you'd follow me there, and I don't expect you to," I hurried. "Besides, it's not like I wouldn't be guarded. Suiya's got the house surrounded, and there will be palace staff and royal soldiers on duty. Unless the Azkai have a vacation house somewhere on the island, I'd be isolated. I doubt they'd try anything."
His shoulders relaxed- agreement.
I furrowed my brow. "So, yeah...Everything okay?"
He nodded and gave a thumbs up.
I raised both eyebrows in passive surprise. "Oh, well, okay."
He left his hand in the air, the air about him suddenly becoming questioning. I shrugged, keeping my arms crossed. "No, it's okay, and I'm glad you've given me a sort of...go-ahead... Nevermind." Part of me felt affronted that he hadn't offered more resistance to the idea, but when paused for a moment, I realized how reasonable it did sound.
Besides, he wasn't my bodyguard.
"Well then," I breathed, cheeks feeling slightly pink, gazing over his shoulder and down the street to see a faint figure moving amongst the shadows.
I paled and held my breath, the Spirit stepping aside while following my line of sight. The small figure of a man dressed in dark red moved, posture hunched, beside the line of stalls and buildings, and between the nervous, thundering beating of my heart in my ears I could make the muffled sobs and whimpers that echoed down the street.
The Spirit didn't make a motion, instead holding still while I stepped to his side, watching as the small, weak-framed man ventured closer, huddled against the wall when he saw us. Glistening, golden eyes met mine and he snivelled, hands twitching as he curled them towards his chest. The Spirit was inert, poised and defensive.
The man whimpered, eyes locked on me. "The Avatar has taken everything from us," he sobbed, tears running down his cheeks. "I can't do this anymore... I can't do this anymore... She left me. No one buys from my stall anymore. No one has any money- no one can pay our debts. No more."
Shakily, he reached down towards his belt. The Spirit stiffened against me, shoulders flattened defensively.
The man glanced up towards me, eyes blunt. "Can't do this anymore..." he breathed. "No one wants the Fire Nation... No one wants it. No one has any money. It's all over, and they're all gone. The Avatar...takes everything." A glint sliced in the dark from a silver blade, and he brandished it towards me, locking his teeth together.
"Can't do it anymore," he whispered.
I blinked, heart missing a beat.
The man sprinted, charging forward on uncertain feet that fumbled across the cobblestone road, but before I could think to do anything the Blue Spirit stepped into the man's way, dipping low before rising to strike his windpipe, elbowing the knife out of the way while sending the man staggering backwards, falling down in shock.
I stared, stunned at how quick the Spirit actually was.
The man scrambled, trying to right himself when the Blue Spirit leaned down and shoved him back with a simple motion. The beggar man collapsed again, trembling and bowing in the Spirit's dark shadow, the Spirit removing his protective mask to let the full anger of his sapphire one shine through.
"The Blue Spirit..." he breathed, gaze accusatory as he cowered. "Please, please, Spirit, don't hurt me. I wasn't going to hurt her! My children, please, they're starving. And, and my stall! The soldiers closed my stall! The Avatar took away my crops in the Earth Kingdom! Please, please, don't hurt me! Didn't mean any harm..."
The Spirit hunched his shoulders and pointed towards the knife laying in the middle of the street, glowing in the moonlight.
The man sobbed, hiding his face in his hands. "No, no, no... Please, I have nothing..."
The Spirit paused, uncertain for a moment. But his posture quickly hardened and he bent down to pick up the knife, clenching it in his fist.
The man burst into frightened tears, his words crashing together. "No, please, didn't mean anything!" He cowered at the Spirit's feet, begging for mercy. "Please!"
My expression faltered as his words violently struck a chord with me. I clenched my fists, then moved forward and tapped the Spirit's arm. "Let's go," I murmured, holding onto his elbow while the Spirit gave me a measured look. "Please, he's not worth it."
After a moment, he nodded, picking up his mask and fastening it back to cover his blue one. Huffing, he kicked the man's hands from his feet and strode protectively to my side, slipping the dagger deep into his cloak. Then, before I could react, he shot a hand into the air and launched an explosive jet of fire that burst into a ray of colors.
I started and stared at the Blue Spirit, the shouts and yells of soldiers commencing in the distance. "Hey, illegal fireworks!" "It's past curfew!" "Immature children!"
I furrowed my brow. "But he didn't do anything," I whispered, hurt.
The Spirit trembled, grabbing the knife from beneath his cloak before dropping it on the ground between us, taking a hand of mine and fiercely pressing the fading line of blood on my palm.
I winced. "But he didn't actually hurt me," I protested.
He shook his head, as if it didn't make a difference.
Soundlessly, he scooped me up into his arms and jumped, soaring into the air before landing on a roof, lunging back into the night in a run for the volcano. I held onto his shoulders and tiredly watched the ground move beneath us.
The Blue Spirit spun us over the railing and gently set me on my feet, barely winded from the long sprint back. The moon was nearly below the jagged edges of the palace city, the night darkening in its full climax.
I stood for a moment, watching him as he crouched on the railing, perfectly balanced, watching me back. After a moment's pause, I pursed my lips.
"You couldn't just let him go, could you?" I asked. "What was so difficult in that?"
He stared at me, straightening his posture in defense.
"He was just a broken man," I argued, one hand out. The Spirit only stared at my palm, and I grimaced.
"Fine, he had a knife. Perhaps he meant to hurt me. He was dangerous, he shouldn't be among people," I admitted. "Happy?"
The Spirit didn't move.
"You had the situation under control. He wasn't going to try anything. Not after you knocked him back, anyway..." I grouched.
The Spirit curled his shoulders inwards, standing on the railing with flat feet while he glanced back into the distance.
I frowned, staring at his calmly balanced feet. "Where did you learn to fight like you do, anyway?" I asked, crossing my arms. He stared down at me. "You must be in acrobat in real life."
The Spirit leaned back a little, caught off guard. Quietly, he slid himself down and onto the bench.
I raised both eyebrows. "I mean, you took out that guy like it was no problem. Fast, and efficient."
Then the idea struck me. All of the memories of the Blue Spirit intervening with fate surfaced and my breath caught. He shrugged, beginning to turn back when I stopped him.
"Hey," I began, suddenly feeling uncertain about the idea nagging me. "Just hear me out for a moment."
He folded his arms, waiting.
I tucked my hand back beneath my arm. "Look, you know that I've haven't been training very long in waterbending. As much as I love it, there's no one here besides Aang to teach me. And Aang's usually busy doing Avatar stuff anyway. And you admitted that you think that the Azkai will try again. I need to learn to defend myself. You won't always be there to save my butt, which it starting to get borderline annoying."
I caught myself, cheeks flushing. "No, wait, don't take that like it sounded! Not that I'm not grateful at all for what you're doing; I mean, you've done a lot, and I can't thank you enough, and...look, I want...would like..."
He waited expectantly.
Rolling back my shoulders, I breathed deeply then spoke. "Teach me how to fight."
He twitched, the air dead between us.
I frowned. "No, seriously, teach me how to fight. Just like you do. Teach me how to be calm and reserved. Even teach me how to run across the roofs so that you don't have to carry me all the time! Teach me how to fight so that when the time comes, I'm not useless."
He didn't move.
I smiled timidly. "It doesn't make the nights completely useless."
His shoulders slumped in tension and he turned to the side, one hand clenched at his side while the other held the back of his neck. He then took off his protective mask to reveal the blue one, tapping it and then gesturing towards me, shaking his head.
My heart squeezed. "No one will know about it. You'll come get me, and then we can run out together. We can fight crime! We can be a crime-fighting duo! Think about it; it's perfect! You can't always be there, and the Azkai are after me. Aang won't always be here, but the night is when they attack anyway. People like that man come out at night and do stuff like that to innocent people."
I bit my lip. "Think about would've happened if the man had come across somebody else, somebody not like us, or somebody who doesn't have you with them all night. I don't know, maybe he could've seriously hurt them. He claims he meant no harm, and he mightn't've in retrospect, I don't know. But other people wouldn't handle the situation like you would've. There could be victims. You're right to argue that he did come at me with a knife, and that's dangerous."
The Spirit looked away almost sadly.
I inhaled, collecting my thoughts and trying again. "The Fire Lord said that people think you're an outlaw, but I don't think you are. I think you defend people. I think that's why you started doing this- maybe the Azkai hurt you too, I don't know, but whatever it is, you're one of the only people out there right now that believes everyone needs a protector from this legitimate threat. And I want to defend people too. Telling the Fire Lord about what happened to me is helpful, but it just isn't enough; I need to be out there actively defending people. No one needs to live with the fear and the danger that somebody else wants to hurt them."
I trailed off at the thought. The Spirit only stood faced away, concentrating. "...sometimes the Fire Nation needs a protector too."
I looked away. "Everyone needs help right now. Even you."
He turned back to me, hands relaxed while he gazed at me with a sense of wonder.
I met his hollow, black eyes and smiled. "Hey, well, think about it, okay? I'll be back in three days after staying at Ember Island. That'll give you time to mull it over."
He nodded once in agreement, moving towards the railing after giving me a final once-over, hesitant.
I smiled. "Go. I need to sleep, and you do too. We both have lives to live in the morning."
The Spirit flexed his fists, then bolted for the railing, calmly slipping over and launching himself towards the wall, disappearing into the night without leaving a trace.
The curtains gently swayed in a cooling breeze, and a small twinge of sadness tugged at my smile. "Thank you for tonight," I whispered to no one.
Nothing good was becoming of Sokka's poor attempts at sleep. He tossed and turned, lying in a puddle of sweat. Not even the open windows sufficed at bringing in the cool air he was used to. His shirt and pants lay crumpled in a heap on the floor, the sheets kicked back on his bed, his underwear beginning to feel as if they were insulating too much heat.
He stretched, groaning as he covered his eyes with a pillow, words muffled. "Freaking fall asleep already," he growled.
Hot air wafted in and he groaned, sitting up straight, furiously rubbing his eyes. "Come on, pull it together." He slapped his face, collapsing backwards. He shifted, leaning his feet against the wall while supporting his head up with both hands.
Finally, when his eyes closed, he resorted to counting koala-sheep, falling in a lull that was soothing until he heard something whisper outside, trees swaying and bending beneath suddenly added weight.
He wrinkled his nose, resolving to ignore it. Perhaps it's Momo, Sokka thought absently to himself. You know, Aang could be sleeping poorly too. And he's taking Momo outside...for a midnight stroll... Yeah, sure, why not? Let's go with that. Sokka convinced himself he shouldn't care less. Big day tomorrow, apparently. Katara had promised away the next three days to the Fire Lord.
Sokka frowned at the thought. The Fire Lord.
"Pah," Sokka spat, laying his arm across his eyes. "Pandering politician. Who does he think he is, anyway?"
The rustling briefly continued outside. Momo was busy.
But Sokka lay distracted, his count of koala-sheep dissipating at the thought of the Fire Lord inviting his little sister to a private celebration. Pandering or not, Sokka's instincts cried foul. He didn't even know where Ember Island was. And why had Katara accepted so hurriedly?
Spirits, he cursed. His sister was too compassionate at times. Besides, she was the one who sympathized with Hakoda first- she decided it was best they come here.
Sokka grimaced. Maybe she thought the Fire Lord was cute. He knew girls did that; did weird things because there was a cute boy in the mix. Maybe he pulled the rugged-look off. Sokka had tested the rugged look on girls before. Maybe that had a certain appeal, and Katara accepted because the Fire Lord was pretty.
Sokka frowned. But he was ugly! He had a scar, he had a bad temper...besides, he'd kidnapped Aang years ago. Now she liked him?
Sokka then grinned, slapping himself in the forehead. Of course she didn't like him. His sister was smarter than that. She was thinking of safety- safety at a new place on Ember Island for a festival that riled people up. The last thing Sokka needed was to lose Katara in a crowd.
Sokka gagged and then sat up, massaging his temple while he breathed. No, definitely not the Fire Lord. No one from the Fire Nation. One member of the family Fire Nation was good enough for him. Sokka couldn't bear another excuse to have to come here again.
He rubbed his eyes and groaned. "This is just a mess, isn't it," he sighed behind his hand, legs hanging off the bed as he stared at the floor.
A tree branch brushed against the wall of the house, leaves whispering before taking flight in a small breeze.
Sokka stared at the window, letting his hands fall into his lap as he moaned, hanging his head. Aang and Momo needed to cut it out, now.
Grudgingly, he dragged himself to his feet, limping towards the window while flexing and yawning. "Stupid monk with his stupid lemur. Stupid midnight with stupid sleep."
He leaned his head out of the expansive window, gazing down into the garden. He frowned- he saw nothing, just an empty expanse of flowers, grass, and a large wall that stood erected towards the sky. He glanced towards his sister's balcony- nothing.
"Hello?" he asked, hushed, wrinkling his nose. "Hello!"
Nothing. Just a darkness that went deep into the grounds of the estate. Only moonlight lit the jungle of stone and plants.
The fireworks of the Fire Festival sounded in the distance, and Sokka sighed. "Perhaps I'm going crazy..." he wondered aloud, slowly sinking into the cool rock of the windowsill, eyes closing under an oppressive weight, and ages went by below the slow heat of the darkness that pressed him down, down beyond a world of color and sound.
In a dream, Katara stared at him. You couldn't just let him go, could you? What was so difficult in that?
Sokka frowned, gesturing towards the carcass that suddenly appeared in his hand. What, this? It's your dinner. Be grateful, because it'll be delicious. His stomach growled and his mouth watered at the thought of food.
Katara rolled her eyes, crossing her arms angrily in defense. You had the situation under control. He wasn't going to try anything. Not after you knocked him back, anyway...
Sokka nodded in pride. Of course he wasn't, it's a dumb animal! Now it's dinner.
Katara looked away, and suddenly the bright dream plummeted to darkness, and he watched as Katara lay crumpled against the wall of a house, exhausted and frightened, bleeding cuts running up her hands and along her forearms, the ends of her clothes singed. Her voice floated in his head as he stared in horror. Telling the Fire Lord about what happened to me is helpful, but it just isn't enough; I need to be out there actively defending people. No one needs to live with the fear and the danger that somebody else wants to hurt them.
Sokka gasped for air, panicking at the memory of seeing his sister so beaten.
Everyone needs help right now. Even you.
Sokka squeezed his eyes shut. No, Katara...
Go. I need to sleep, and you do too. We both have lives to live in the morning.
The image changed and suddenly his eyes opened, the real world flooding back to him while blood rushed to his head. He panicked, forcing himself to a stand from the windowsill while her words haunted him, the memory of the night of her attack too painful as his throat stung. He didn't dare let himself close his eyes in fear of seeing it happen in his head all over again, and instead glanced towards her balcony down across the side of the house, convincing himself that his sister was okay.
A black figure moved in the night and leapt off the stone railing, a blue mask flashing while the silhouette flew through the air to land on the wall, dropping down and disappearing.
He gaped, Katara standing with black cloth draped across her shoulders, staring into the nothing, whispering, "Thank you for tonight."