Special thanks to clockworkchaos for beta reading this fic!
His and Her Circumstances
Part 1 of 3: Hers
(Five months before the end of Avatar Aang's hibernation.)
(A different world...)
Colonial summers are cool and dry compared to the Home Islands' equatorial climate. Such mild weather is said to instill rampant softness among the colonial class and, alongside a reputation for miscegenation, be partly to blame for the dearth of indigenous firebenders among the second, third, and fourth generation colonists. At least that's what Mai's instructors told her at the Academy, but she finds she dislikes the colonies for other reasons.
The lack of common firebenders means hot water is a rarity, so everybody stinks. 'Dirty as an earthbender' isn't a pejorative in the colonies, it's a common descriptor. Their food is bland because people are too poor to import decent spices. The water has her laid up in bed for the first week with a low-grade fever. Worst of all, the fire flakes taste nutty.
Conditions only worsen the further inland her father drags her. The peasants are at least authentic in their dullness, but the local governors pride themselves on being paper-thin imitations of the Home Islands' nobility. They paint their mansions in fake gold trim, cut their clothes in fashions two years out of date, and tutor their heirs with cast-off Academy instructors.
The men and women overseeing the Fire Nation's economic interests are miniature tyrants, lording over their colonial subjects with nonsense rules. Some ban fashions reminiscent of the Earth Kingdom's, others amend the state-approved curriculums to aggrandize their own reputations through miniature personality cults. It's like no one bothered telling them that Sozin abolished the daimyos and their petty power blocs back during the late Roku Era.
Mai puts her mask of cool indifference to much use in the course of her father's fact-finding mission, hiding her disdain for the would-be daimyos. Whatever advice they have for her father about how to best administer Omashu is likely worthless, but no one asked for opinion. The endless parade of tasteless welcoming dinners, pauper mansions, and interchangeable settlement towns quickly exhausts her minimal interest. Yet it's better than being back at home, listening to her awestruck mother harp on the greatness of each dribble of drool rolling down Tom-Tom's chin. At least here she can be bored without sweating through her clothes.
And bored she is, until one evening in Panlong Colony...
Panlong Colony is a clutch of closely nestled stone buildings surrounded by high wooden walls. Like most 'new' settlements, it is still very obviously a captured Earth Kingdom town with red paint slapped over green roofing tiles. The streets, laid down by a people who could casually reshape the landscape, bend and curve and split in disorderly fashion. It's a pattern that's a standard defensive design in the borderlands, where the earthbenders have altered their towns and villages to be confusing to attackers who breach the city walls.
Mai only cares that it helps her wander aimlessly. If she exhausts herself enough, she'll be able to sleep tonight. Her day was taken up by a political lunch that kept going until it rolled through dinner, and she'd had nothing to do but sit still and say as little as possible.
Only there is nothing to do to work off that pent up energy because Panlong Colony sucks. Red lanterns hang overhead, strung up in preparation for the Fire Days festival, but it's just another half-hearted attempt at imitating life back in the homeland. Dragonfire-flies and buttermoths buzz around the lanterns, and Mai supposes that if she were a bug then a little fire would be exciting too. Better to dive in and end it all than live on here.
It's while contemplating the bugs - Because what else is there to do in this hole? - that Mai spots a black shape moving across the skyline.
Most people, upon catching a stranger skulking on a rooftop in the night would, after calming their racing heart, inform the city guard.
Following the mysterious man from street-level would only end the game prematurely, either when he slips out of sight or when the locals figure out why Mai is staring so intently at the rooftops. So when she gives chase, Mai ducks into an alleyway and then starts climbing. She won't be running away to join Ty Lee at the circus, but her best friend has taught her a few acrobatic tricks over the years.
She, Ty Lee, and Azula used to go skylining in the capital's harbor district. It was a game of skill and daring. They would work together to steal lunch from the best local restaurants, and then throw a picnic on the roof of the Coal Board. It was the best spot to watch ships dock. Those rooftops had been old, the tiles loose, and, in several spots, rotten rafters had all but snapped under their feet. The roofs in Panlong Colony are no challenge in comparison. The wood under Mai's feet is sure and the tiles firmly affixed.
Warm, red lantern light fills the early nighttime, making it easy for Mai to track her target. As she closes the distance between them, her instincts tell her that this figure is a man, even if she can't see his face beneath the blue mask. The gait is all wrong for a woman.
When he hops down onto a lower-lying rooftop, Mai decides now is the time to announce her presence. Standing tall at the edge of the house behind him, she levels her wrist launcher and shoots a stiletto. The slender dart buries itself in the roof tile adjacent to his outstretched hand.
The reaction is explosive. He spins around, whipping out his twin dao. Mai tests him with a lazily thrown knife. The masked man easily bats it out of the air.
"Finally," she says, the knot in her shoulders loosening. "If the colonies had more masked men like you, maybe it wouldn't be such a desolate landscape of utter dreariness."
She raises her brow at the whisper, the unexpected familiarity in the stranger's tone throwing her off-balance. Her mistake buys time for the masked man to throw a smoke bomb. Mai reflexively fires several stilettos into the billowing cloud, but there's no cry of pain.
When the air clears, he's gone.
Oh!" bursts Qiang, the governor's portly son, cutting her off mid-sentence. "You're talking about the Blue Spirit!"
It was evening. While her father discussed the upcoming revisions to the unified colonial penal code with the governor, Mai was stuck playing pai-sho with Qiang. His broad, ruddy face was unreservedly animated by whatever emotion he felt, and Mai couldn't help but think it was a blessing that he had never attended the Academy. They would have eaten him alive. One quality he has in his favor was a preference for pai-sho to polite conversation. The long resulting silence won him approval from Mai, even if the intensity with which he enthralled himself with their game was almost manic.
By their third round, Mai had stopped playing with any actual strategy and was instead randomly shuffling pieces around the board. She was ahead in points for the first time that night. Her unoccupied mind kept wandering back to her encounter the night before. Leaving out the details of their meeting, she asked Qiang about a man in a blue mask. She didn't get ten words out of her mouth before her jumped down her throat.
"And who exactly," she asks, "is the Blue Spirit?"
A finger wags in her face. "Not who. What. Some say he's a vengeful spirit, striking out against those who oppress the peasantry. Others state that the mask is a mantle of vengeance, passed from ghost to ghost, so that the unquiet dead of the Earth Kingdom can find peace by settling their scores against us."
"So he's some criminal with a stupid mask."
"Eh. Pretty much. But I like the wilder stories better." Qiang belts out a laugh. The tiles on the game board jump. "He's a living colonial legend, and a quite capable criminal. I'm surprised that you Home Islanders have never heard of him. From the bounty on his head, you'd think he'd been the one who killed Prince Zuko or something."
Mai hums noncommittally, pretending to study the board. In her lap, under the tabletop's cover, black fingernails dig into her palm. "Your move."
"Hm? Oh! Yes, yes." Qiang leans over the board, hawkishly staring down his nose at the tiles. After a few seconds he glances up, sneaking her a smile. "Thank you for agreeing to play me. I haven't had a game this good since General Iroh visited us in the spring."
The boy is expecting her to seem interested or at least offer him a lead-in with "Oh, the Dragon of the West stayed here?" Instead Mai bores a hole in the board with her eyes, inwardly rehashing old regrets. Qiang catches the hint, wilts, and returns to their game without another word.
Mai loses the round, then retires to her guest bedroom to dream about a dead boy with a shy smile.
She wakes in the middle of the night, hand already drawing the sai hidden underneath her pillow. Her bedroom is a foreign country in the darkness. The only light is from the crack between the hallway door and the floor. There's a passing shadow in that thin light that shouldn't be there.
Someone is standing outside her bedroom.
Mai slips out of bed, checks that her sleeping robe preserves her modesty, and then pads towards the door. She has few weapons on hand. Her wrist launchers are laid out on the dresser, but she'd make too much noise equipping them; likewise with her knife belts. The retractable sai and the few blades tucked into her robe will have to suffice.
Mindful of creaking floorboards, Mai tiptoes towards the door. A lifetime of decorum lessons has left her movements fluid and silent.
The shadow vanishes.
Mai does not rush forwards and throw the door open. Instead she opens it slowly, giving her eyes a moment to adjust to the hallway's oil lanterns. No one speaks to her, or tries to bust down the door to hurt her. When she's ready, Mai steps out.
The dim hallway is devoid of people. Suspicions undeterred, she heads left, the direction the shadow moved. The mansion is settling in the night, and each creak and grown almost seems a menacing monster from childhood. She should be all alone. The servants have bedded down, and Mai knows the governor bars his personal guard from the third floor. No one respectable would have tried to visit her at this hour.
Rounding a corner, Mai spots a light flickering underneath the door to the governor's study. Qiang's father could still be up this late. Surely colonial governors worked through the night on the pressing issues of crop rotation, census taking, and tax collection.
But Mai doesn't think so.
She sets her hand on the brass handle and carefully opens the door. The well-oiled hinges preserve her stealth.
Inside the study, the Blue Spirit stands with his back to her, busying himself with the contents of a bookcase. He is searching for something. Mai doesn't know what, nor does she care. Rather she stands there silently for several moments, savoring the feeling of getting the drop on this 'legendary' thief twice in as many nights.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you," she says, and he freezes mid-motion, "that you'll go blind reading by lamplight?" The shift in his muscles would be imperceptible to the untrained eye, but Mai knows the look of someone readying themselves for a fight. "Don't. You're almost interesting, and I'd rather not go back to envying the dead just yet."
The Blue Spirit raises his hand. He turns. Mai hazards a few seconds to study his mask. Its color is boring, but the thief's eyes are less so. Even in the dim candlelight, they gleam like gold. Fire Nation eyes. And...
"Who are you?" she demands. "How did you know my name?"
The Blue Spirit averts his gaze.
"If you're not going to say something, I might as well use this." She means the sai, knowing he had seen it. "And don't think I won't. Now spill."
"You grew out your hair," he finally says. "It looks nice."
Every part of her goes cold.
The sai in her hand trembles. It does so because she's gone wobbly since no no no it can't be he's dead and I won't ever see him again. The Blue Spirit takes off his mask, and at the end of a lopsided glare is Zuko.
"Mai?" her father calls from the hall. "What are you doing up?"
Zuko scrambles underneath the governor's desk. Mai stares. She doesn't turn around until a warm hand touches her shoulder. Her father is standing in the doorway, his free hand cupping bent flame. By the calm look in his eyes he obviously didn't see a dead prince floating around.
"Mai, it's nearly... are - are you crying?"
She touches her cheek. The fingertips come away glistening. "I guess?"
Her father's face is soft with age, with wrinkles that ran deep. Now those heavy lines stretch wide into shock. He dismisses the fire in his palm and gently takes hold of her by both shoulders. "Mai, look at me. What's wrong? You can tell me."
For once, her schooled demeanor betrays her. Father has caught her in a rare vulnerable moment. Her heart flutters. Telling her father the truth is an option that can be dismissed out of hand, because her parents are not the sharing kind. Not unless your name was Tom-Tom.
Ty Lee taught her to climb and jump. Azula taught her important skills, too. So Mai tells her father the truth from an indirect angle. "Before, Qiang was talking. He played pai-sho with General Iroh in the spring..."
Father sighs. Reaching out, he rests his open hand on top of her head like he did when she was a small child. It's been years since he last did it, but Mai lets the gesture pass without objection. She could use some steadying right now. "I know it's hard, but you can't let hopeless wishes affect you, even when they belong to the Dragon of the West. He's gone."
Yes. Gone underneath the governor's desk.
"You're right." She makes a maudlin show of wiping her cheeks on her robe's sleeve. Slipping around past her father, she moves for the door. Her father follows in tow, praise be to Sozin's ashes. "I'm being stupid. Wandering around won't help me. I guess I'll just have to find whatever answers I'll get in my bedroom. Tonight."
Her father claps her on the back even as he closes the study's door. "That's the spirit, dear. A good night's rest always gives us the answers we need in life."
"Yeah," she says. "I'm sure the airbenders were all napping on the meaning of life when we wiped them out."
"Quite possibly. Savages do strange things."
Once Father drops her off at her bedroom door, she goes inside and waits for a dead boy to come to her.
Zuko isn't long.
He steals into her bedroom with a grace she never associated with him. The idea of him learning poise with age makes her feel less like a stranger. Mai is grateful for her bedroom's darkness. It cloaks the gulf between them; six months of exile and two years where he was presumed dead.
They speak in whispers.
"Where's your lantern?"
"On the nightstand beside the bed. Left-hand side."
There are two rough scratches, and then a snap-sizzle as a matchstick flares to life. The yellowish light washes over them both: Zuko in his body-hugging black outfit, expression a fiendish white-cheeked smile carved from wood; her, lewd in an open sleeping robe, the last traces of modesty preserved only by her underwear, chest bindings, stiletto wrist launchers, and many belts of newly donned knives.
The match eventually burns down to his fingers. Zuko gasps in shock. The light goes out. He fumbles in the dark, and after several seconds a second match is struck. The pleased smile adorning her face gives way to puzzlement.
"Why do you need matches?"
Zuko sets the tiny flame to the oil lantern. Only then does he remove the Blue Spirit mask. His eyes are dark now, clouded over. The easy confidence is gone. This is the awkward thirteen year-old boy Mai remembers, shy one eye and with scruffier hair. "You, uh, look good."
"I do," she says. "I also need easy access to my weapons and I didn't want to risk a pervert walking in if I started dressing."
"You... don't trust me?"
Anger surges in her belly. If her parents hadn't already wasted years rigorously testing her for signs of firebending talent, Mai is certain she would have burned him to ashes then and there. "You've been missing for two years. Everyone thinks the Fire Lord had you assassinated - except for your uncle, who's a sad punch line at parties because he's been hunting around the world for you. But it turns out General Iroh is no joke because you're still alive. But where do I find you? Dressed like a thief because apparently, for some reason, you are a thief!"
Zuko blinks. "That's the longest thing I've ever heard you say."
Mai launches a stiletto at his head. He sidesteps it, letting the wall take the blow, but a few of his black hairs flutter down to the floor.
"Don't joke," she rasps, finding it hard to breathe. It takes a few seconds for her to collect herself, but Mai long ago became her own master. When she next speaks, it is in cool, passionless tones. "I thought you were dead. I mourned you. Ty Lee and I held a funeral for you because no one else would. You don't have the right to joke with me. Understand?"
Zuko has the decency to look ashamed. "Mai..."
She blinks stinging eyes, pushing back unshed tears.
His jaw tightens. "You might not like it."
"I don't especially like you right now." She closes her sleeping robe and ties it at the waist. "Whatever you say can only improve my opinion of you, Zuko."
He bows his head. "That's fair."
Mai sits at the edge of her bed. After a moment, Zuko plants himself a few inches away. It's a respectful distance, even if their overall situation is hardly proper. She's barely dressed and is entertaining a boy, a criminal, in her bedroom. They don't have the veneer of a betrothal as a flimsy excuse. They aren't even dating.
It's like something out of one of Ty Lee's trashy novels. Although if that's the case and she's in some freakish world where Zuko is supposed to be the hero, he'll get a knife between his ribs if he tries ripping off her chest bindings and ravishing her. If Mai is ever involved in anything as stupid as that, she'll be the one doing the ravishing.
Not wanting to sit on it, Zuko holds his mask in his hands. The Blue Spirit stares up at them both. The lantern's weak light casts long, flickering shadows across its cruel brow and crazed, toothy grin. Up close, Mai sees that the mask is weather-beaten. The paint is cracked in places, and there are off-color spot fixes dabbed here and there.
This is no mantle of celestial vengeance. It's just an old theater mask, albeit one Zuko cradles like her mother does Tom-Tom.
The late, unlamented Crown Prince of the Fire Nation audibly swallows. "I guess it started like this..."
- End Part 1 of 3